Hospital for Special Surgery CEO Louis Shapiro On Making Healthcare More Accessible

Lou Shapiro, CEO of the Hospital for Special Surgery
Louis Shapiro, CEO of Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS)

Growing up, Louis Shapiro had to deal with both of his parents trading off illnesses. The hardship meant Shapiro had to work long days at his dad’s floor covering store, where he grew an appreciation for running a business. His parents’ sickness spurred him to go into pre-med in college, but he quickly realized after one course of organic chemistry that practicing medicine wasn’t for him.

Instead, he got into the management side of healthcare and was able to combine his interests in business and medicine. The Pittsburgh native received his BS and MHA degrees from the University of Pittsburgh and then worked at Allegheny General Hospital in several roles. From there, he went east to Danville, Pennsylvania, where he took on a senior leadership position at Geisinger Health System.

As Geisinger became known nationally for its integrated model of care, Shapiro’s own star rose and he was asked if he would be interested in serving as the CEO of The Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS). At the time, he didn’t know much about the New York-based hospital for orthopedics and rheumatology. “Back then, the only thing I knew about HSS was it was the hospital you drove under when you’re on the FDR highway on the East Side of New York City,” he recalls.

He accepted the offer and 13 years later, Shapiro has helped developed the Hospital for Special Surgery into a national powerhouse of its own. It’s been ranked as the top orthopedics hospital in the country for 10 consecutive years by US News. Moreover, its expanded nationally and has committed to new construction on the East Side of NYC.

Chief Executive visited Shapiro’s high-rise NYC office, right next to that famous wing over the FDR, to talk about the organization’s employee engagement initiative, on making healthcare more accessible and more. Below are excerpts from part one of this interview.

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One of your big focuses at the Hospital for Special Surgery employee engagement. Most healthcare providers are focused on patient engagement—why is employee engagement an important initiative for you?

Employee engagement is one way to describe it. We do talk about that a lot, but it’s more [in reference to] what’s the importance of culture in an organization? And how does that drive performance? So having employees engaged in what you’re trying to do is synonymous with creating a culture that is a foundation strategy for HSS.

I have had experiences in organizations that had a good culture and for a variety of reasons, lost it. And I’ve been in organizations that the only thing it had were its people and they knew how to invest in them. So, experiencing those two ends of the spectrum, I made a decision in my own mind that I had a singular responsibility for this organization as CEO and was going to make this an important platform. I believe that culture is a strategy that if deployed correctly, it allows organizations to achieve a level of results that are otherwise unattainable.

It’s not just for an altruistic reason of doing the right thing. I mean, obviously that’s great but the notion of a culture here…the general notion of it is leadership by all. We have 6,000 people here. Leadership by all means every one of those 6,000 people may have a different job to do…but everyone’s a leader. You’re a leader of yourself. And what part of you do you bring to work every day? You’re a leader of our commitment to excellence and nothing less than that. You’re a leader of helping the organization get from where it is to where it needs to go on its roadmap. And we’re all the same in that regard. The challenge is how do you create an environment where that’s not just lip service.

What would you say are the biggest challenges you face—whether it’s related to healthcare or a cultural issue? What are the things that keep you up at night?

There are three things most important to me. Job one is don’t mess things up. Job two, make things better. It doesn’t matter what we’ve accomplished yesterday, make things better today. We have the lowest infection rate. Irrelevant. We have infections. How do we make it better? We have the highest patient satisfaction. Irrelevant. How do we make it better? We have a lowest complication rate. Irrelevant. How do we make things better? Our value to employers is better than any other place. Irrelevant. How do we make it better?