Dr. Michael Lappi views his role as chief medical officer at New York-based Corning from a population health perspective. Which makes sense since the multinational company employs approximately 50,000 people. But Lappi, who still practices care on the weekends, hasn’t lost sight of the personal touch patients need. Modern Healthcare insurance reporter Nona Tepper spoke with Lappi about how the role of a corporate CMO is evolving. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What qualities should companies look for when hiring a CMO?
It’s important to have someone who is very clinically adept, comfortable with broad ranges of medical areas and specialties, but also has the ability to be collaborative with all of these specialists and Centers of Excellence. It’s not so much that I’m taking care of one patient, it’s much more of a public health perspective. And on top of all of that comes the appreciation for the business aspect of what we do.
Every company is looking for different things. Delta Airlines just hired its first CMO when they realized that their passengers’ safety and health while they were traveling was a critical issue.
In many companies, it can be a very straightforward role, like helping us align on initiatives at a high level. In other companies, it’s more directed toward, “How do we solve a particular issue?”
What are your responsibilities at Corning?
My job is to streamline care, improve access to care and find the best care. It’s really bringing in the best partners that we can find, whether that’s having great collaborations with our local providers or national partners, and creating an environment that really focuses on our employees and their families.
My first priority is to make sure that I’m prepared to save a life. The second one is that we protect the company through all of our regulatory requirements, our surveillance exams and those sorts of things. The third thing is around promoting well-being, making sure that our employees and their families are getting what they need, they’re happy, they’re healthy and they’re able to access the care that is meaningful to them. When the families are happy and the employees are happy, the company is able to really fully fire on all cylinders.
I think most CMOs would say that we’re kind of like the team doctor for a football team. On any given day, I’m taking care of the community of our employees. If someone were to call me and say, “Hey, listen, I’m having a medical event with my family,” then it becomes much more like a typical clinical practice, where I would have a much deeper conversation about the specific medical event and how we are going to hopefully manage that well.
The most dramatic ones are around a new cancer diagnosis. That’s a conversation that you hope to never have and where I think my office provides concierge-level care. If we’ve done our job well, and we have communicated well, people know to reach out to us. That call comes directly to my office, and then there’s a conversation about, “What have your doctors told you so far?” Depending on the answer, we would go deep on either supporting them there or soliciting second opinions.
Typically, we refer them to one of our Centers of Excellence, like Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where we would say, “Here’s Patient X with prostate cancer, here’s where they’re at, here are the studies they’ve had done, let’s help develop care plans.”
In all of that, we’re looping in our benefits team to make sure that they’re getting all of the travel benefits that we’ve set up, and making sure that, if short-term disability is needed, that we have the right people connected into those systems. Then we’re closing the loop with their supervisors and their business units to make sure that they’re covered.
How did COVID-19 change your role?
COVID really changed our visibility. Last January, when we started to even vaguely understand what COVID was, we started having lots of high-level discussions with our senior leaders, from the CEO on down, and those conversations never really stopped. It was like, “Here’s this massive global medical event, here’s how it affects our business, and here’s what I can do to make this run the best course possible while we’re protecting our employees and doing all the right things so that we’re going to be proud at the end of this event.”
A recent change is that I report to the chief administrative officer. I used to report to HR, but we just reconfigured my department and my reporting structure so that we’re attached to the senior levels.
What have you found is the best way to control costs?
We find fairly large cost savings in being able to direct care to the specialists who have the greatest knowledge and understanding of that particular condition, when treatment is necessary, and making sure that the care is appropriate the first time, not having to constantly cycle through a very difficult and complex system for the average employee to manage. In combination with our health benefits team, I think we’re able to really drive cost savings while still delivering quality.
What does the future look like for CMOs?
The role is only going to expand. Companies are really understanding the value that having a dedicated medical professional can bring to the organization.
The limiting factor is if we’ll be developing the next generation of folks who are able to step into those roles. There are lots of conversations around our universities and our medical schools about how to develop leaders who are comfortable working in these sorts of spaces. And, as a military guy myself, I think there is a lovely partnership that we can develop with our military physicians and veterans, who are very accustomed to working across national lines.
There’s a very clear path forward, but we need to devote the energy to get there. It’s only going to be to the benefit of our employees, our patients and our companies in the long run.