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Updated: March 15, 2021

Business Leader of the Year: Dickson led the region through the pandemic

Photo | Matthew Wright Dr. Eric Dickson, president and CEO of UMass Memorial Health

As a military veteran, it may be a natural comparison for Dr. Eric Dickson to make a war analogy to the coronavirus pandemic he, UMass Memorial Health Care, and the entire Central Massachusetts region are starting to emerge from after a nearly year-long fight.

“We’re approaching V-Day,” Dickson said, referring to the day World War II ended. “We’re feeling that the end of this is near.” 

Just like with war, there’s both a building sense of celebration and deep sadness for so many lives lost: more than 500,000 across the United States in roughly a year’s time.

“Especially here in America, it was way worse than it needed to be,” Dickson, president and CEO of UMass Memorial.

Dickson’s role as the top executive of the largest employer and largest health provider in Central Massachusetts put him during the pandemic as perhaps the highest-profile leader across the region.

“There’s something special about Eric Dickson that he brings to everything that he does,” said Steve Walsh, the president and CEO of the industry group Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association.

Walsh said Dickson possesses a rare combination of medical know-how and intangible leadership abilities.

“Those matched together make for a pretty special leader,” Walsh said.

Early on in the pandemic, Dickson pledged not to lay off or furlough any UMass Memorial workers, and stuck to it even as other healthcare providers laid off employees. Despite a financial crunch hospitals faced with plunging revenue during the pandemic – something later largely offset by federal aid – Dickson said he felt the worst thing the hospital could have done was cut jobs during a health and economic crisis.

“We can’t lay people off during this terrible thing because people have enough on their minds,” Dickson said. “Imagine going through COVID and then losing your job?”

Eventually, UMass Memorial workers received $500 bonuses. It wasn’t hard to convince the hospital’s board and financial leaders to sign off on the idea, Dickson said.

The pandemic has kept Dickson especially busy and at the forefront of the state’s response. UMass Memorial was a lead partner in setting up a Worcester field hospital at the DCU Center both last spring and this winter, and the hospital system had an agreement underway just before the pandemic hit to bring Harrington Hospital in Southbridge into the medical system.

Still, Dickson hasn’t forgotten his roots as an emergency department physician. Early in the pandemic, he could be found every Sunday pitching in as an ER doctor, and he calls one of his most cherished moments during the pandemic being part of a small hospital staff that went to the home of a couple in their 90s to get them vaccinated. Dickson said he didn’t expect to make a huge clinical difference working ER shifts but wanted to show solidarity with an overworked unit.

“I just needed them to know I was with them,” he said.

Walsh, of the Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association, said Dickson’s leadership during the pandemic has caught the attention of industry leaders, such as with the DCU Center field hospital, which was the first of its kind in Massachusetts and served as a template for others to come around the state.

Dickson was elected the chair of the MHA in January.

“He’s been a leading voice during the entire pandemic in a number of ways,” Walsh said.

In another case, Dickson and UMass Memorial worked with Beaumont Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Center, adjacent to the University Campus in Worcester, to turn the facility into one exclusively for coronavirus patients. That was also a first in the state.

Beyond those health-focused moves, Dickson and UMass Memorial were outspoken voices in support of racial equality, particularly as the issue rose in prominence in the wake of George Floyd’s death last summer. Dickson also hasn’t shied away from advocating for Medicare for All, or criticizing former President Donald Trump’s administration for having not provided better leadership during the pandemic.

Dickson’s efforts leading UMass Memorial have been noticed by other hospital executives, including Dr. Kevin Tabb, the president and CEO of Beth Israel Lahey Health in Boston. Dickson, Tabb and their major-hospital counterparts in Massachusetts have held regular calls throughout the pandemic, as often as four or five times a week at tims last year, Tabb said, to help coordinate care, line up recommendations for policies at the state levels, or check in on whether others were dealing with similar issues they might be able to share insight on.

“Many of us feel, and I know it’s true for Eric, that we’ve spent our careers getting ready for a moment like this,” said Tabb.

Dickson, Tabb said, benefits from having a rare combination of taking big-picture looks at issues as leaders of major institutions but also doing the little things, like picking up ER shifts.

“He’s a very, very sharp leader,” Tabb said of Dickson. “He has a tremendous amount of credibility within his own institution and around the state.”

Dickson, the head of UMass Memorial since 2013, remembers when he first heard of a worrisome new virus in China: in late December 2019, before the virus was making widespread news across the world. He initially thought of other fairly recent public health scares, including SARS and Ebola. Neither ended up quite as bad as initially feared.

In early March last year, the UMass Memorial board met in person and reviewed plans, not expecting the scale and severity of what was to come.

“We’ve been through this before. We’ll prepare and we’ll go through our protocols,” Dickson said, recalling his message at the time. In a short time, though, he spoke with friends who worked in hospitals in New York City and got a more direct impression of how bad things were than what could be conveyed through news reports.

“It was Biblical,” Dickson said of the stories from inside New York hospitals at the time.

“Eventually in April, it was, ‘This is real,’” he added. “The numbers are going up, going up and going up. It was really scary. There’s no other way to put it.”

Dickson began his career as a respiratory therapist, so his mind quickly went to the risk UMass Memorial health providers were taking when they were intubating – or using a tube to help someone breathe – coronavirus patients.

“Early on, it was all about: Oh my God, I think we’re going to have caregivers potentially die from taking care of patients,” he said. “I remember going to bed one night and thinking, I don’t know where we’re going to put the next patient.”

UMass Memorial was able to handle all of its patients – just barely – with help from the DCU Center field hospital, the extra beds at Beaumont and maneuvering around intensive care beds inside the hospitals to expand capacity as much as possible. Elective procedures were postponed, and visitors were banned with very few exceptions.

Nearly a year after the pandemic first hit, Dickson finds himself not spending virtually every waking minute thinking about the crisis like he used to. Today, he says his time is about 25% pandemic-related, and the rest forward-looking, including the Harrington merger, which still requires regulatory approval. Much of his time is spent having a greater appreciation for his roughly 14,000 employees, who he doesn’t shy away from using a word you don’t often hear spoken by a CEO: love.

“I can’t imagine there’s a prouder CEO in America. I just can’t,” Dickson said. “The scarcest resource we have is talent. Not capital – talent.

“I don’t think enough CEOs talk about loving their employees,” he added. “I really love them.”

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Susan Crimmins
March 22, 2021

This is a well-deserved reward for Dr. Dickson who has steered UMass Memorial Health Care in the right direction in this very challenging year. Thank you for your outstanding leadership and dedication.

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