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Executive Moves: New MetroHealth CEO Committed to Building Trust, Addressing Health Inequity

Analysis  |  By Melanie Blackman  
   January 19, 2023

Airica Steed, EdD, MBA, RN, succeeded Akram Boutros, MD, as CEO in December.

Airica Steed, EdD, MBA, RN, is breaking the glass ceiling in her new role as CEO of Cleveland, Ohio-based MetroHealth. She is the first woman, Black person, and nurse to lead the four-hospital nonprofit health system.

She previously served as COO of the Sinai Chicago Health System and president of Mount Sinai and Sinai Children's Hospital. She began her role on December 5, 2022, during a turbulent time for the organization, after the previous President and CEO, Akram Boutros, MD, was fired by the board of directors for allegedly authorizing himself bonuses without disclosing them to the board.

Steed spoke with HealthLeaders about transitioning into her new role, her commitment to building trust within the organization, and her passion to address health inequities.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

HealthLeaders: With the previous CEO already out, how are you successfully transitioning into your role as CEO?

Airica Steed: I have hit the ground sprinting on rollerskates. It's obviously not the norm in terms of a normal transition, but I'm still encouraged and motivated by it. I have come into a situation where I have such an amazing team of people around me: a team of leaders, of supporters, of advocates, and that has smoothed the way in terms of my transition. As I've transitioned here, I feel like the red carpet has been rolled out for me. This doesn't feel like just an ordinary job or ordinary role, this truly feels like I've transitioned into a family atmosphere. I'm right at home.

HL: During your first 100 days you're taking part in a listening and engagement tour. What have you learned so far and what pain points are currently top of mind?

Steed: It's a very intentional way for me to really listen, learn, take heed, understand, [and] unlearn in a lot of respects. Certainly, I don't want to bring bad habits or anything that is going to take us off the path that we need to be on. Coupled with not just focusing on the four walls of Metro Health, but outside of the four walls of Metro Health as well. So, getting engaged with the community early, understanding what the community needs in a profound way, [and] starting to get that voice heard and open up seats at the table so we can make a real difference.

I've always acknowledged and recognized the fact that this is such a magnificent organization because of the people [who] serve and are dedicating themselves every single day. But at the same time, I would say the challenge is how do we keep the people engaged, especially given the fact that we have not been shielded from the same workforce challenges, vacancies, and shortages that are reflective of the nation. Everyone is grappling with that, and everyone is trying to get their arms wrapped around it.

I really want to get upfront and close and center around that particular issue, to come up with a strategy, not just MetroHealth-specific, but in a collaborative way of cracking that nut.

HL: Being the first woman, person of color, and nurse to lead MetroHealth, what are your thoughts on breaking those barriers?

Steed: Honestly, I'm so encouraged. I'm so proud. I strongly believe that the perpetual glass ceiling has been shattered, and certainly, this is creating a heightened degree of momentum that others can follow. I'm certainly widening that door and smoothing the way for more minorities, for more women, for more people of color. No matter what you represent, you can absolutely make a difference. At the end of the day, I'm proud, and above and beyond just the professional sense, I'm proud of what it represents for my children. It certainly demonstrates a sense of encouragement and hope that they can do this too.

HL: How will your background as a nurse help you lead as CEO?

Steed: I'm a fourth-generation nurse—I carry that forward in my leadership, steering every single role that I've had. It speaks volumes when you've been in the trenches, and you can understand the pain, the need, and how to walk the walk and talk the talk. I carry that experience forward with me, because it makes me much more in tune, more empathetic, more vulnerable [and] to be able to make the adjustments that I need to lead in the right way.

I'm encouraged by my background and experiences there. It also helps to shape my resolve in being resilient in general. I've walked into a very difficult challenge, and a challenge that most leaders don't have to face, but the mere fact of my background and preparation as an emergency department and critical care nurse, I'm equipped with the skillset of troubleshooting, decision-making, being able to navigate through crises in a more profound way than someone who doesn't have that experience.

HL: How will you use your position to address health inequity and racial disparities?

Steed: This is something that gets me up in the morning and keeps me up at night; this is something that fuels me to my core. My life is a representative example of healthcare inequity and disparities. I've been rocked by it in a very profound way: I lost both of my grandmothers to breast cancer, there was a byproduct of misdiagnosis and delayed diagnosis; I lost my mother to a rare form of leukemia that was late diagnosed and misdiagnosed; I lost my younger sister a little bit shy of a year ago to breast cancer after being denied the right screening that would have proactively identified the cancer prior to spreading to various aspects of her body.

I, myself, am a byproduct being a preeclampsia survivor, and knowing what it's like to be separated from your children for weeks on end and being able to experience that. Those stories have fueled my passion and my purpose around disrupting the broken system, and disrupting the centuries of inequity, misdiagnosis, delayed care, and mistreatment. That is a front and center focus for me.

I don't want to just make incremental changes to health equity. I want to eradicate healthcare disparities. I want to improve the life expectancy and eradicate the death gap that shows up for minorities. specifically. Those things are front and center on my priority list as I take the organization into the future.

I want to emphasize both the wounds that you see on a regular basis and you treat most profoundly, but also want to wrap my arm around the wounds that you don't see that [are] crippling our communities and social drivers of health that are impacting the lives of those that we serve.

I'm honored to be able to give voice to the right purpose and the right causes that uplift the way we provide care, and the way we center around that whole person. I'm just delighted to be in a position where I can impact positive change for the better.

HL: How are you addressing the previous CEO's ongoing bonus controversy?

Steed: I'm doing a lot around this. A first step as the CEO of this institution is how do we deal and navigate with this crisis at hand. I can say loud and clear and unequivocally that the board made a courageous, difficult decision. I'm moving us ahead and we're not going to be impacted by it. We're trying to put this in our rearview mirror and start to turn the spotlight back on the great people in the organization. But in doing so, we know that we have to start to break away the sense of distrust because of what occurred.

With that being said, one of the first things that I've done in my role is to ensure that we have the right safeguards and we do a comprehensive review and analysis of all of our processes, all of our procedures, [and] take a heightened look at our people to make sure that we make the necessary adjustments along the way to ensure that no such situation ever occurs again in the future. We've enlisted the support of a third-party outside evaluator, and they're in the throes of conducting a detailed assessment looking deeply under the hood to help us to shape our way forward out of this.

I have a very positive outlook on our future. I have a heightened degree of confidence in our board. I have a heightened degree of competence in our team and the growing team that I'm starting to build as part of my role here.

HL: How will you work with Olusegun Ishmael, MD, MBA, the newly named MetroHealth COO and president of the hospital division?

Steed: I'm extremely excited about this. I want to emphasize that Dr. Ishmael was my right hand in Chicago in my former role at Sinai Chicago. He comes heavily recruited and highly recommended for all the great work that we got accomplished in Chicago. He, like I, is ready to roll his sleeves up and hit the ground sprinting out of the gate, because we have a great duty to serve and a great mission to accomplish. His focus is going to be on the hospital division, and a lot of the key areas of focus [are] centered under his charge.

“I'm honored to be able to give voice to the right purpose and the right causes that uplift the way we provide care and the way we center around that whole person. I'm delighted to be in a position where I can impact positive change for the better.”

Melanie Blackman is the strategy editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.

Photo credit: MetroHealth Critical Care Pavilion in Cleveland, Ohio. Photo courtesy of MetroHealth.


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