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The Exec: Inaugural CMO Set to 'Drive Change and Improvements'

Analysis  |  By Christopher Cheney  
   March 29, 2023

The new chief medical officer of OU Health faces challenges including access to care, workforce shortages, and financial sustainability.

Editor's note: This article appears in the June 2023 edition of HealthLeaders magazine.

The first chief medical officer of OU Health plans to focus on quality and safety, medical informatics, data analytics, patient experience, digital health, population health, and process improvement.

Carolyn Kloek, MD, was recently named as the inaugural CMO of the Oklahoma City, Oklahoma-based health system. She previously served as senior vice president of clinical strategy and integration at OU Health. Her other leadership positions include serving as vice chair of quality and innovation at Dean McGee Eye Institute.

HealthLeaders recently talked with Kloek about a range of topics, including defining the CMO role at OU Health, achieving high-quality care, and driving innovation at OU Health. The following transcript of that conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

HealthLeaders: You are the inaugural CMO at OU Health. What are the primary ways you plan to define the role?

Carolyn Kloek: It is a tremendous opportunity, and I am thrilled to be able to work with teams across OU Health.

As the CMO, I see myself as a leader to drive change and improvements in our performance in many different areas. I also think that healthcare is a team sport, and I will be leaning into teamwork, supporting our teams in their efforts to drive improvement in our patient outcomes.

The scope of work under the office of the CMO has several areas that we are actively building out, which includes quality and safety, medical informatics, data analytics, patient experience, digital health, population health, and process improvement. There are tremendous synergies between all of these areas, and I will be working hard to set up teams within each area, then matrixing those teams so we can drive performance improvement.

HL: What do anticipate will be your biggest challenges in serving as CMO of OU Health?

Kloek: There are some overarching themes of challenges that we face at OU Health. One is our access to care, particularly in Oklahoma, which is a state that is largely rural. Access to care is an issue that we need to tackle. It is on OU Health and healthcare professionals in general to aid in the development of strategies to improve access for patients in the rural parts of the state and to ensure that we are delivering equitable care to all patients seeking care at OU Health.

Another challenge we are facing is in our workforce shortages. Our providers, nursing staff, and other key pieces of the healthcare workforce are stretched thin. We depend heavily on these valuable, highly skilled professionals to create access and to deliver high-quality care. We need to continue to do everything we can to support members of our healthcare workforce and get creative in the ways that we design and deliver care at OU Health.

Financial sustainability is another challenge that we and many other healthcare organizations are facing. At this point in time coming out of the coronavirus pandemic and as the state's only academic health system, it is critical that we remain strong financially while we concurrently provide top-notch clinical care to meet the most complex medical needs in the state and fulfill our academic mission as well.

HL: You were vice chair of quality and innovation at the Dean McGee Eye Institute. What are the primary keys to success in achieving high-quality care?

Kloek: One of the important principles is the commitment to strong leadership in delivering high-quality patient care. It is on leaders to work with their teams to establish a culture of quality and safety, to set clear goals, and to provide the necessary resources and support to care teams.

Tied with leadership is a culture of continuous quality improvement—creating a continuous cycle and driving to always improve in our healthcare settings.

We need a data-driven approach to improvement. Performance needs to be measured—you can only manage what you measure. Data becomes the tip of the spear to help us identify the areas in which we are underperforming. Then we need to ask ourselves, why, and what can we do to improve performance? On the flip side, we can also use data to tell us where we are doing well, then try to scale that across the organization.

Collaboration and teamwork are also important to performance improvement in a health system, which is a complicated ecosystem.

HL: How can OU Health drive innovation?

Kloek: As the only academic health system in Oklahoma, OU Health is very well positioned to drive innovation. We have the unique aspect of having the tripartite mission—the alignment of clinical care, education, and research. We can innovate in each of those areas. By innovating in those areas, each one feeds and builds on the other areas and makes those areas stronger. You get into a virtuous cycle that drives innovation in each of the three domains.

Carolyn Kloek, MD, chief medical officer of OU Health. Photo courtesy of OU Health.

HL: What are the key elements of patient safety?

Kloek: For health systems to drive safety, there needs to be a preoccupation with the delivery of safe care across the board. There needs to be a hardwiring of safety within all elements of the organization. You need to look at areas where you are underperforming and understand the safety areas you need to be tackling in order to improve. Similarly, you need to look at areas where you are doing well—find out the safe practices that you are proud of and want to scale across the organization.

An important element of patient safety is capturing the voice and input of our frontline caregivers. They are often the best positioned to identify practices that are enhancing patient safety as well as any areas where we could be improving.

HL: You have a clinical background in internal medicine and ophthalmology. How has this clinical background helped you serve in physician leadership roles?

Kloek: Having had diversity of training both in internal medicine during my internship and ophthalmology is incredibly helpful. It has given me perspective on many different sites of service in a health system—in the inpatient setting, ambulatory care, operating rooms, and ambulatory surgery centers. I have worked as a clinician delivering care in all of these settings, and that diversity of experience has been helpful in leadership positions.

HL: What advice can you offer to other female physicians who may be interested in administrative leadership roles?

Kloek: The first piece of advice is to believe in yourself. You need to have confidence in yourself and believe that you can achieve in whatever area you are striving to grow and lead.

It is helpful to develop leadership skills, and that comes from proactively developing leadership skills. There are formal paths to doing that through leadership courses specifically tailored to physicians, and you need to pair that with leadership experience in the clinical setting. Gaining leadership experience in the clinical setting often does not start big. It can be asking yourself, "What can I help fix? What can I help address to make this environment better for my patients and for my colleagues?" You need to roll up your sleeves. With on-the-ground leadership experience, opportunities will start to come as you have wins in different areas.

Another piece of advice is to build a network of support and mentorship. When I look at the mentors I have had along the way, they have been able to give me coaching, give me advice, open up opportunities, and help me to this day as I continue to grow as a leader.

The last piece of advice is to embrace diversity and inclusivity in all forms. We all are strengthened by seeking the input of a diversity of people—people with different thoughts and different backgrounds.

Related: The Exec: Coronavirus Pandemic Remains a Top Challenge

Christopher Cheney is the CMO editor at HealthLeaders.


For health systems to drive safety, there needs to be a preoccupation with the delivery of safe care across the board.

At an academic health system, innovation can be driven through clinical care, education, and research, with each area strengthening the others.

Female physicians interested in administrative leadership roles need to believe in themselves, develop leadership skills, build a network of support and mentorship, and embrace diversity and inclusion.

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