Like all who knew him, I was shocked and deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Bernard Tyson, Kaiser Permanente's CEO. And even though we lived on different coasts and came from different backgrounds, I was privileged to call him my friend.
Given Tyson's prominence in our industry, it's fitting to begin any commemoration of his professional achievements by contemplating a few big numbers. When he took over the healthcare giant in 2013 after decades of climbing up the organization's ladder, Kaiser Permanente had 9.1 million members and employed 174,000 people, including 17,000 physicians. When he passed away in his sleep this weekend, the company he helped build had 12.3 million members and 218,000 employees, including 23,000 physicians. Its revenue nearly doubled as well, from $53 billion in annual revenue when Tyson assumed the helm to nearly $83 billion today.
But numbers alone fail to capture the man. Healthcare is first and foremost about people and Tyson never lost sight of that. As both a provider and insurer, the Kaiser model he helped champion brought people and organizations together—insurers, physicians and other clinicians under one roof. The goal? To provide patients with high quality and a unified approach to care that inspired many health systems to follow suit, the one I lead included. By paying doctors a salary rather than compensating them on a fee-per-service basis, Kaiser was able to focus strongly on preventive care, helping patients not only get better but stay well.
This was very much Tyson's spirit. As Kaiser's CEO, he oversaw an ambitious $900 million plan to build a new headquarters in Oakland, Calif. Although advised to consider a more affordable location, Tyson refused to abandon the city. A true leader and healer, he realized that real well-being depended on strong, cohesive communities, and that sharp socioeconomic downturns were very likely to generate a barrage of detrimental health conditions. To his everlasting credit, even when a new initiative seemed on the surface to be about bricks and mortar, Tyson knew better. Healthcare was about people first.
To that end, he not only invested in Oakland in the traditional way, boosting its economy and creating new jobs, but also led an effort last year to spend $200 million to reduce and prevent homelessness in the city. Giving patients access to quality care was one thing, he realized; but if you wanted to keep them out of the emergency room and in good health, it sure helped if they had a roof over their heads. Tyson also recognized the critical need to transform the way we educate future clinicians. My staff and I had the pleasure of working with Tyson and his academic leaders in helping them create the Kaiser Permanente School of Medicine, which was informed by what we had done with our own medical school, the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell.
Tyson's philosophy made him stand out in a corporate environment that is too often concerned about little else but the bottom line. As one of very few African-American executives to lead major American companies, he had a unique perspective on life that few of his peers could share.
"You would think my experience as a top executive would be different from a black man who is working in a retail or food service job to support his family," he wrote in one LinkedIn post. "Yet, he and I both understand the commonality of the black male experience that remains consistent no matter what the economic status or job title."
This insight made Tyson focus on establishing his organization not only as a leader in its professional field but also as an engine of communal well-being in each market it entered. It was, he said often, the lesson his father, who was a preacher and a carpenter, had taught him at a young age. "I am a product of a wonderful family, of a village, of a city, and a lot of people helped me along my life's journey," he said in a 2017 speech after being named as one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people. And he saw it as his commitment to continue and offer the same help to those who needed it, from peers and employees to patients, neighbors, and friends.
Healthcare is about people first and we have lost one of our best.
As we mourn Bernard Tyson—and those of us who knew him will continue to do so for quite some time—let us honor his memory by dedicating ourselves to his legacy. A person's ZIP code, we now know, plays a greater role than that person's genetic code in determining health, with less-affluent and less-educated Americans much more likely to suffer from any number of health condition.
Our job as healthcare providers—from CEOs to nurses and from physicians to receptionists—is to help spark conversations that bring divergent partners to the table and offer assistance in everything from housing to hot meals to classes on proper exercise and nutrition. As Tyson understood intuitively, there's no better path to real improvement, and no better way to keep Americans, especially the most vulnerable ones, from getting needlessly sick.
I am lucky to have had the opportunity to get to know Bernard Tyson. And even though I can no longer call him for advice, I and other health system leaders can and must keep the inspired conversations we've had with Bernard alive by pursuing his vision of making America a healthier, more mindful, and more just nation.