December 7, 2015
Power Players: Change Agent

Eric Dickson resuscitates UMass Memorial

Dr. Eric Dickson never set out to be a hospital administrator, but leadership roles have tended to fall into his lap as he practiced as an emergency room physician over the years, thanks to his take-charge nature.

"You either want to be the one who owns the decision or you don't," said Dickson.

Dickson, 49, has held a few different executive titles. Before he was CEO of UMass Memorial HealthCare, he was president of the system's doctors group, UMass Memorial Medical Group, and previously served chief operating officer at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

It's obvious Dickson still thinks as a doctor. He thrives in environments that require rapid triage, as UMass Memorial Health Care did when he was appointed CEO in 2013.

Dickson said he didn't have a full grasp of the dire financial straits UMass Memorial, the region's dominant provider and largest employer with a staff of 13,000, was in when he was hired because there's lag time in operating results. At the time, patient volume was declining, and key decisions were delayed during the search for a successor for the former president and CEO, John O'Brien.

Dickson had to act quickly to avoid disaster, as UMass Memorial was in danger of defaulting on its bonds.

"I've seen times with trauma patients where you have to take the leg to save the patient, and I felt that's a little like what we did," said Dickson, of his decision to lay off 600 employees in both clinical and administrative roles, as well as to reduce services and even sell one of the system's hospitals, Wing Hospital, to Springfield-based Baystate Health.

Clearly, Dickson has a pragmatic streak. A University of Massachusetts Medical School alumnus who continues to practice in the ER in Worcester, Dickson's gone toe-to-toe with union groups, and even an independent neonatology practice that's operated for years at the hospital, delivering an ultimatum this year that NICU staff either join the UMass Memorial physician group or be ousted.

Cuts have achieved the intended result. The system was operating about $18 million ahead of budget in September, after finishing with a $55 million surplus in fiscal 2014. That followed an operating loss of $55 million in fiscal 2013.

Full-year financial figures for fiscal 2015 are due out this month.

Today, volume has rebounded, thanks in part to process improvements that have improved patient flow. As the system shifts its focus to population health management initiatives driven by healthcare reform, it's also revamping its information-technology infrastructure across its four hospitals as well as the doctors' group, and hiring about 200 contract workers and new employees to support the $700-million project. The IT department will be relocated to space in a Front Street office tower in downtown Worcester.

This is a significant development for downtown revitalization efforts, said Worcester City Manager Edward Augustus Jr. Augustus is pleased Dickson has maintained a strong relationship between the city and UMass Memorial, which is important, since the system is Worcester's largest employer and partners with the city on public health initiatives.

Augustus has high hopes for what Dickson will do for UMass Memorial, now that the heavy bleeding has stopped. "An institution as big … and complicated as UMass Memorial is not an easy thing to change, but I think Eric has provided a lot of good leadership to help reposition in a very positive way," Augustus said.

Read about other Central Massachusetts Power Players

Change Agents: Executives bringing their organizations to new heights

Visionaries: Forward thinkers pushing to realize the promises of the future

Politicos: Public officials leveraging their positions to further business development

Fresh Faces: Newcomers to Central Massachusetts with refreshing perspectives and ideas

Inner Circle: Long-time players who continue to have a significant role in new developments

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