A doctor’s influence
Dr. Alan Kaplan has quietly changed the look of Greater Madison’s health care scene.
From the pages of In Business magazine.
Throughout his life, Dr. Alan Kaplan, CEO at UW Health, has grown and built things, from tending to tomato gardens and strawberry patches as a child to building physicians groups and leading business transitions as a health care executive. In fact, Kaplan’s growing influence has been shaping the Dane County health care scene for years.
While an executive at Iowa Health System (now UnityPoint Health), for example, he led the physician component of the UnityPoint Health-Meriter (UPH-M) merger. More recently, he championed a joint operating agreement between UW Health and UPH-M to collaborate rather than compete on patient care.
All this from a board-certified emergency medicine physician who never dreamed of where his career would lead.
We recently spoke with Kaplan about his journey.
IB: Talk about your early life.
Kaplan: Neither of my parents had college educations but they always pushed education in our house. My mom later went back for a degree in human resources. My dad was a furniture salesman and self-taught interior decorator.
IB: Did you always want to go into medicine?
Kaplan: Actually, I spent most of my younger years wanting to be a veterinarian. When I settled on medicine, I started out in otolaryngology (ear, nose, throat) and then switched
to emergency medicine.
IB: What drove that change?
Kaplan: I was doing my residency in ENT at the Mayo Clinic but also moonlighting at an urgent care facility. One night a father brought in his six-year-old boy who wasn’t breathing. Just a nurse and I were on duty. We secured his airway, got him breathing and his blood circulating, and treated him for asthma. Saving that little boy’s life was incredible. I knew at that moment that I was destined for emergency medicine.
IB: But that, too, changed?
Kaplan: I was working at Edward Hospital in Naperville, Ill. and applied — just for interview experience — for the medical director of the emergency department. I got it and quickly progressed to chief medical director of the hospital before realizing that I was woefully undertrained for business. So I obtained a master of medical management degree through Carnegie Mellon. That led to jobs in Iowa and eventually to my current position.
IB: Have you had any regrets about leaving emergency medicine?
Kaplan: In 2004 I had to make a decision — either be great at clinical care, great at executive leadership, or be marginal at both. But for a couple of years it was hard to walk through an emergency department without wanting to care for patients.
IB: Medicine is a completely different world now, isn’t it?
Kaplan: When I started in practice in 1991, it was a cottage industry. Since then, I’ve watched hospitals buy up practices and go into business, and I’ve watched them divest and decide they didn’t want anything to do with owning practices. It seems no one’s really looking at private practice anymore, and I suspect that over the next decade we’ll see growth of these large, more integrated health systems. Madison is way ahead of the times in that respect.
IB: What’s most challenging in your role?
Kaplan: Everyone is feeling the pressures of rapidly rising costs in pharmaceuticals, supplies, and labor, while Medicare reimbursements are stable or going down. So
at the same time that we want to be a great medical center and do great things for our patients, we’re under financial pressures to cut costs.
IB: Any other frustrations?
Kaplan: It’s not okay for a patient to have difficulty scheduling an appointment or getting their care coordinated. We have all sorts of digital tools and processes we can implement to meet patient expectations, but it will take a complete cultural transformation and a work redesign of an organization that was built for research and educational and clinical excellence.
If you need a new pancreas or liver or heart or lung, or bone marrow transplant, we can do it, but if we need to coordinate your primary care and three specialty visits, we fall a little short. It’s crazy. Getting it right 90% of the time isn’t good enough. We have the intellectual capital, we just have to do it. It’s our job.
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