Improving Care for Veterans
Photography by Catie Viox
Cincinnati’s VA Medical Center struck leadership gold, when they hired Elizabeth Brill, MD, to serve as chief of staff in May.
Dr. Brill knew from age 5 that she wanted to be a doctor, but serving in the armed forces wasn’t always on her radar. Growing up in New York City, she was intrigued by the images in her immigrant parents’ medical books, but they had studied in countries where higher education was practically free. The sticker shock of American medical schools prompted Dr. Brill to apply for a U.S. Army scholarship. Two scholarships, two top schools and an internship in Texas led Dr. Brill to a medical clinic in South Korea.
“You’re in this little clinic, and you’re sort of running the show, and trying to figure out how to take care of patients – without the benefit of a big hospital,” she says. With few testing and x-ray resources, her ability to diagnose patients was quickly sharpened by interviewing them and listening to their description of symptoms.
The U.S. Army gave Dr. Brill multiple opportunities abroad and stateside. Unlike civilian hospitals, many leadership positions in military hospitals are filled by physicians, something she was destined to do. Her superiors recognized that she was able to “just keep problem-solving in real time,” as she puts it.
Dr. Brill built upon her patient-care experience with an MBA from the University of Chicago and subsequent management consulting work where she could diagnose and treat the operational problems inside healthcare-related companies. Dr. Brill was drawn to her new role because it’s mission-based, focused on improving the whole person, rather than the operation of the hospital itself. She especially looks forward to returning to clinical program oversight – accountability, safety and quality for members of the American military. As chief of staff, Dr. Brill will exchange ideas and information and impact healthcare policy on a larger scale with the national Veterans Health Administration.
One of Dr. Brill’s first tasks has been to listen to the needs and experiences of her staff. She understands that you can’t choose a direction without first knowing the baseline – what’s working and what’s not. She has arranged a strategic retreat for her team, which hasn’t been done in more than 10 years. She also hopes to infuse the culture with flexibility and an openness to a fresh approach for common tasks. She intends to investigate companies from industries outside healthcare (FedEx, Amazon or Google) for successful models of internal and external customer care.
Dr. Brill has a three-pronged approach to establish success at the Cincinnati VA Medical Center: informed and creative patient care; emphasis on teamwork and a “greater good” approach; and bringing kindness into all interactions among staff and patients alike.
“I can respect you, but not be very kind,” she says. “If everyone is kind, all of that other stuff will follow. You’ll communicate better; you’ll be more respectful; you don’t assume someone has bad intent.”
In an era where healthcare has become more political than personal, her approach has been well received by staff members. Dr. Brill recalls a colleague poking their head into a meeting and unexpectedly thanking her for making work fun again.
Dr. Brill has realized the demands of being a physician and an administrator makes it essential that she set aside time separate from work. In addition to cultural activities and family travel, she enjoys cooking. She started with brunch and now has an affinity for trying new techniques and recipes for dinner. She’s also discovering Cincinnati one restaurant at a time, her favorite being Sotto, an Italian spot downtown.
Dr. Brill’s first priority is to create a safe place for people to share their concerns and feel supported when they ask for help. “I came into this position at a point of turmoil at this particular institution,” she says. “So a big part of what I wanted to do is understand the basis for this turmoil. How can we start to heal whatever wounds caused this? How can I get people to trust? How can I get people to be on a team? How can I get people to work across silos?” Dr. Brill begins with communication, transparency, and collaboration. She tries to be inclusive and redirect conversations from arbitration to results focused on the common goal.
“There’s just a healing in airing grievances and I really think I help people believe I’m going to help you fix this. We’re going to solve it, and we’re not going to do it in some surface way that looks good. We’re really going to fix it.”
Ultimately Dr. Brill would like her team to feel empowered and respected to do their best work without dictating and streamlining processes. It seems that she’s off to a good start.
The VA Medical Center is located at 3200 Vine Street, Cincinnati, OH 45220. For more information call (513)-475-6302 or visit www.cincinnati.va.gov