Thursday, October 18, 2007

Pallimed Interview: AAHPM CEO Steve Smith

This post is the first installment of a new format for Pallimed. While we here at Pallimed do not profess to be professionally trained journalists, we like talking to people who have an impact on our field, and think that they have some things that would be interesting for our readers to know.
The American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine recently announced the hiring of Steve Smith as the new CEO of the Academy. He only started in August, but has been hard at work getting up to speed on the work and history of the AAHPM. Mr. Smith has experience with other medical societies including the Alzheimer's Association and the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (AAPMR). I recently spoke with Dr. Cameron Muir, the current president of the AAHPM, who gave an enthusiastic endorsement of Mr. Smith's approach and guidance for our field.

Below are some of the questions I asked Mr. Smith, so that we could get to know him a little better.

Pallimed: As the new CEO of a organization of physicians, do you have any practical experience in the actual provision of health care services (i.e. working in a hospital, clinic, medical facility)? If so, how does this experience shape your role and views on the work of the people you are leading?

Steve Smith, CAE: I have always had a strong interest and relationship with physicians and other health care professionals – particularly those who work together as part of interdisciplinary care teams. Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to work closely with a number of physicians, nurses, social workers and clergy. They have been a great source of wisdom, knowledge and inspiration to me both personally and professionally.

Successful management of a non-profit organization – particularly those associated with medicine – requires a unique set of competencies and knowledge about the field. Since I have not worked directly in a palliative care or hospice setting, one of my priorities during the first year as CEO is to spend significant time with members in their practice environments and work settings – in addition to the traditional meetings, conferences and phone calls where our paths will naturally cross.

I see the work we do at AAHPM as an important ingredient in the provision of quality health care – since we are a resource for education, advocacy, mentoring and networking for our members. Our job is to provide access to information, tools and communities that ultimately leads to quality care and support to patients and their families. That’s a goal we all share.

What brought you to the AAHPM as a career choice?

There is truly no other place I would rather be than AAHPM. This is an important time in the history of the subspecialty and I find the members I have met to be genuinely enthusiastic and committed to the mission of advancing the science of comfort while affirming the art of caring. The work we do together over the next several months and years will truly be transformational. The foundation of the Academy is strong and solid -- a testament to the Board and the many volunteer leaders and staff members who have made positive contributions through the years. I look forward to experiencing all aspects of AAHPM and discovering where there are opportunities to change and grow.

Have you seen palliative care up close?

Part of my undergraduate and graduate work focused on Gerontology (in addition to Communications) so I was first exposed to palliative care and hospice through studies and coursework, including a practicum in “Death & Dying.” I also spent several of my college years working part-time in resident services at a continuing care retirement community, so that gave me additional exposure and opportunities to connect with individuals who were had chronic illnesses, some of which were ultimately terminal. I was also involved with initiatives related to palliative and end-of-life care for people with dementia while working for the Alzheimer’s Association national office in Chicago.

One of the advantages and responsibilities that comes with these experiences like these – I believe – is that others see you as a resource. As a result, I have become a more educated health care consumer and have been able to refer (informally) many people to resources, including palliative care services, available within our community. Several members of my family have experienced palliative care … and others who should have did not. I think that’s often the case and I hope we can do more to increase the levels of public and professional awareness moving forward.

Can you tell me more about your roles with the AAPMR and Alzheimer's Association? Do the missions of these organizations conflict or compliment the mission of AAHPM?

Each day I’m amazed by similarities I see. Those involved in Alzheimer’s care are extremely passionate about their work and recognize that good care and support extends beyond the patient to loved ones and other caregivers. I see that same philosophy in hospice and palliative care.

Physicians who work in physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) utilize a comprehensive, team approach to patient care. They also focus on minimizing pain and discomfort and maximizing quality of life. So again, there are similar philosophies, priorities and people within the two organizations.

All three groups have experienced significant growth and maturation in recent years as the population ages and more physicians and practitioners are drawn to these areas of medicine. Increased awareness, utilization, and expanding resources for members become the catalyst for change and expansion. Often times this requires new approaches to strategic planning; innovations in the development and delivery of products and services; and adjustments to existing governance, management and leadership development models. I have been fortunate to be a part of some pretty exciting transformations and I believe, like many others I talk to, that AAHPM is on the verge of something similar.

Your credentials list CAE, could you tell us more about the training the CAE program gives you, and how you plan to apply that training in your new role?

CAE is the professional certification for association management. It stands for "Certified Association Executive". The CAE credential designates those who have the knowledge to serve as the chief staff executive of a nonprofit organization of any type or any size. There are several criteria one must meet before he or she can sit for the exam and ongoing studies required in order to remain abreast of current practices in association management and remain certified.

There are many dimension to managing a professional association, including oversight of financial, operational, legal and governance practices – in addition to ongoing medical education, public policy, publishing, product development, fundraising and committee activities that require ongoing attention. AAHPM has a lot of moving parts and players so effective planning and management is critical.

Hypothetically, as the new CEO, a philanthropist has given you a no-strings-attached $10 million budget to start any new program for the Academy that you see fit. What one or two initiatives would be of interest to you that the Academy may not be highlighting right now?

That would be terrific. Of course, when an organization accepts or secures any type of grant or gift, it always comes with “strings.” Often these monies are restricted, meaning they must be used for specific projects or initiatives. Once the intent is clear, the Board would need to appoint a committee or task force to determine how it could most effectively be used. A number of strategic initiatives would be considered and I suspect some type of multi-year project would be established that would benefit both the membership and the field. It is important that an organization demonstrate it can be a responsible steward of all the financial gifts it receives – whether they are from individuals, private foundations or industry. Therefore, checks and balances must in place – along with ongoing measurement, reporting and communication. As CEO, my job is to make sure these systems are established and followed. So ultimately, the decision regarding what to do with the money would truly not be up to me – and that’s the way it should be.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I have been described by other colleagues as communicative, collaborative and catalytic. In other words, I like innovation and believe strongly that the best way to move an organization forward is by identifying a shared vision and engaging people in the work that needs to be done. I also work hard to strike a balance between being externally focused and internally sensitive. In practical terms, that means I believe it is equally important to tap the collective wisdom of our vast hospice and palliative care network so we can both anticipate and analyze forces that effect the health care environment (external focus) in a way that addresses what members want and need most (internal sensitivity). Sometimes, organizational leaders become insulated, isolated, static or even skewed if they aren’t paying attention to what is important to others. Continual environmental scanning and member surveys are helpful “reality checks” that I like to employ.

Self-care is important in our field. How do you take care of yourself, and achieve a good balance between your personal and work life?

I enjoy spending time with my friends and family. My wife, Karen, and I have three boys – Zack (12), Logan (8) and Blake (2). Like so many parents, we find much of our free time is spent on homework, traveling and attending their sporting events, and any other activities we are able to squeeze in between. Most days I also make time to connect with friends, read for pleasure and engage in some type of physical exercise. Until recently I was a volunteer at a local adult day center for individuals with dementia, but unfortunately it closed. I’m hoping to get involved with a palliative care program and continue to serve on a committee for the local chapter of the American Lung Association as well as a professional organization for association professionals here in the Chicago area. I find volunteer work to be fulfilling. To a certain degree, it also helps me experience what it’s like for those who volunteer within the Academy.

Thank you very much for your time Mr. Smith.

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If there is a professional in our field that you think Pallimed should know about, please email Christian Sinclair at ctsinclair @t gmail d0t com

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