Dr. Jaewon Ryu, you are known for your accomplishments in the healthcare industry
and as a physician. Can you share with our readers what motivated you to become
a physician and to take a career path in healthcare? Did the environment you grew
up in affect your decision to become a physician?
I grew up with physicians in the family, so I was always familiar with and interested in getting into healthcare. Between college and medical school, I worked as an AmeriCorps member in a teaching and enrichment program for inner-city kids, where I saw firsthand the impact that policy has especially on the lives of vulnerable populations – that’s when I became
more interested in the policy side of things. And medical school was where these two interests came together, where I became active in community health programs and the same themes came to light – things like how upstream policies impacted people’s downstream health and well-being.
It was this interest in the crossroads of healthcare and policy that attracted me to the idea of a joint MD/JD degree program. Whether working as an ER physician or in government, on the payer side or now with an integrated delivery system, that perspective of how all things upstream affect downstream health has helped shape so many decisions for me along the way.
You achieved educational degrees in both medicine (M.D.) and law (J.D.). Which of the two did you pursue first and what led you to pursue education in two different fields? How has your educational background affected your professional decisions? Did you ever practice both professions at the same time?
To be honest, I can’t say that my educational path was all that planned. My interests have always gravitated toward the intersection of policy, payment, and care delivery. I’ve always believed that when these factors come together, we can focus on care models and programs that keep people and communities healthy. The joint degree program just became a natural way to pursue these areas of interest. I started medical school first, took an extended leave of absence halfway through to attend law school and then spent time working as a corporate healthcare attorney. After going back and finishing medical school and then my residency training in emergency medicine, I started practicing as an ER
physician and really enjoyed that work. In many ways, it has informed other stops along my journey. The ER truly is the crossroads of healthcare where so many components of the industry come together. So, while my path has been a bit of a choppy one, it has been fun and rewarding. And no, I never practiced both professions at the same time.
Geisinger is a regional healthcare provider serving more than 1 million people with more than half a million members enrolled in Geisinger health plan. It also has nine hospital campuses, two research centers, and the Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine. As the President and CEO of Geisinger with nearly 24,000 employees and more than 1,600 employed physicians, what do you think is most important in managing and growing such a large organization?
What was your greatest achievement with Geisinger and what do you envision for its future?
Geisinger is a decent size health system, yes, but more importantly it’s one with more than 100 years of history in our communities. Because of that, everywhere you go, you’ll run into someone with a connection to Geisinger. It is a good reminder of how we are so tightly woven into the fabric of the community. And it’s also why we are so focused on being a health partner that makes better health easier for our communities. We know we can make health easier when we meet people where they are, building clinical capabilities and moving them closer to where people live and work. Most of the time, that means things like bringing programs into the home, into the clinics, or even interacting with people remotely. I’m especially proud of the different teams here who make this a reality every day. It can be the fitness instructor teaching yoga at our 65 Forward clinics, or the Geisinger at Home nurse hanging IV medications in a living room, or even the Free2BMom counselor helping mothers battling opioid addiction to care for themselves and their babies.
These and other programs illustrate how we’re tackling not just the medical issues but also the social determinants of health – going beyond what’s inside the hospital and working to impact societal factors for overall health and well-being like food insecurity, transportation and housing. When we develop programs like these and then combine that with easier access to top-notch clinical services closer to the home and communities, we know great things happen for folks.
"It is a good reminder of how we are so tightly woven into the fabric of the community. And it’s also why we are so focused on being a health partner that makes better health easier for our communities"
Prior to your tenure at Geisinger, you held various leadership roles in health systems
including the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences Systems, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the Department of Veterans Affairs as a White House Fellow. What were your roles in these different health systems and what was the most memorable position? Did you face any difficulties in these roles?
Each of these roles came with challenges but provided me with great opportunities to continue to develop in my career journey. But on top of all of them, I think the most memorable and impactful position I’ve held was as an ER physician. In the ER, you never know what’s coming through the door next, which keeps you on your toes and gets you very comfortable with the unpredictable. The ER is also the setting where you see so many gaps in healthcare come to a head. When care isn’t coordinated, or when patients can’t access services, or when there isn’t a focus on prevention and care isn’t managed effectively between payors and providers, you see the consequences in the ER. And by the same token, it also provides a close glimpse into the solutions needed to chart a better course, and hopefully that’s something we can model for the entire industry.
Dr. Ryu, as a leader in the healthcare industry, what do you think are the major challenges that the current U.S. healthcare system faces and what approaches do you foresee to address these challenges in the next five to ten years?
One big challenge that comes to mind is the affordability of healthcare. Especially as segments of our population age and hopefully continue to live longer, there is a greater need and as a result, a greater cost. At the same time, working-age populations and their employers see increases in healthcare costs as well. While these trends are sobering, they also present an opportunity to transform the way in which we deliver care and the way we pay for such care.
Shifting the focus of care delivery further upstream can spark prevention of more costly downstream health problems. Whether it is investing in food programs for food-insecure diabetic patients like our Fresh Food Farmacy or investing in care coordination and treatment in the home setting like our Geisinger at Home program, we have seen firsthand that these efforts end up decreasing the downstream need for ER visits or hospitalizations. We’ve also tried to make it easier to access primary and specialty services in the clinic environment, and as we’ve done that, we’ve seen the use of ERs decrease as accessing the right care at the right time in those other settings becomes easier.
But programs like these are turbo-boosted with the right payment model. As payment and delivery move closer in healthcare, the incentives align better to invest in such programs. As both public and private payers increase the adoption of value-based payment models, I believe the momentum will continue to build in creating an environment where providers can accordingly adapt care delivery models focused on value and upstream prevention.
Your experience will be a true inspiration to our readers and many in the healthcare
industry. Could you please share a message for future physicians and healthcare professionals that aspire to exceptional careers and accomplishments?
One piece of advice that some mentors of mine have impressed upon me over the years has proven to be true, especially over the past year and a half with the pandemic. And that advice was to embrace change and uncertainty and to get comfortable rolling with the punches. Of course, during this pandemic, this has become a way of life for our team at Geisinger, as folks have tackled this pandemic head-on, pivoting when needed, shifting gears along the way, and remembering that flexibility is what will help us come out the other side of this. I’ve never been prouder to be a part of a team as our Geisinger team has just risen to this occasion in these ways. And even aside from a pandemic context, this has ended up being pretty good career advice as well, since being adaptable seems to open
the doors of opportunity more often.
Jaewon Ryu, M.D., J.D.
President and Chief Executive Officer, Geisinger
Jaewon Ryu, M.D., J.D., is a president and chief executive officer of Geisinger. He came to Geisinger as the executive vice president and chief medical officer in 2016. During his tenure at Geisinger, Dr. Ryu has cultivated a spirit of innovation and transformation across the organization, driving new approaches to some of healthcare’s most complex problems. These include initiatives like primary care redesign; Geisinger at Home, which brings
healthcare services to patients in their home; and Geisinger 65 Forward, senior-focused, concierge healthcare centers. This dedication to innovation for the health of communities earned Dr. Ryu a top 20 spot on Modern Healthcare’s Most Influential Clinical Executives list for 2019. Previously at Humana, Dr. Ryu was president of integrated care delivery and responsible for Humana’s owned and joint ventured care delivery assets. Prior to Humana, Dr. Ryu held various leadership roles at the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System; Kaiser Permanente (where he also practiced as an emergency medicine physician); and in government, at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and as a White House Fellow at the Department of Veterans Affairs. He was also a practicing
corporate healthcare attorney with the international firm McDermott, Will & Emery. Dr. Ryu was appointed to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, an independent body legislatively tasked with advising Congress on payment and other policies governing health
plans and providers serving Medicare beneficiaries. Dr. Ryu earned his BA degree from Yale University and his MD and JD from The University of Chicago. He completed his residency training in emergency medicine at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.