Health care hall of fame – Bernard J. Tyson

Photo of Bernard J. Tyson

For many with such experiences and memories, the confines of a hospital might be the last place they would want to launch a career. But not for Tyson.

He had seen firsthand the role the healthcare system could play in a family’s life and wanted to make a difference. “I actually had a dream from the beginning to become a CEO, but it was really of a hospital,” Tyson once said. “My ambition was to be a hospital administrator.”

He took that dream and ran with it. Tyson had a nearly 40-year career in healthcare leadership, including 30 years in ascending roles at Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente. The last six of those were as CEO of the large, integrated healthcare system, the role he held when he passed away in his sleep Nov. 10 at age 60.

Under Tyson, Kaiser grew from 9.1 million members, 174,000 employees and $53 billion in revenue in 2013, to 12.2 million members, 218,000 employees, and nearly $85 billion in revenue in 2019.

But growth wasn’t just about revenue or market share, it was about embracing an expansive definition of healthcare. His—and Kaiser’s—mission wasn’t just to provide high quality care and convenient access to those services. It was also about a comprehensive approach to health and prevention to connect physical health and mental health. And for Tyson that included committing a lot of his time, attention and the organization’s resources to addressing the social factors that contribute to poor health and poor healthcare outcomes.

“Bernard took the organization’s mission statement to an entirely different level with his work around the social determinants of health,” said Gregory Adams, a former executive vice president and group president at Kaiser who in December was named to succeed Tyson as chairman and CEO. “It was his work around mental health and stigma, the work around schools and the great work we are doing and were doing under his leadership about homelessness and understanding the impact that has on the larger community.”

A drive to address affordable housing and homelessness was one of Kaiser’s more ambitious undertakings. Tyson in May 2018 announced that the organization was investing up to $200 million to help address housing instability in the communities it served. “We hope our commitment creates a broader national conversation on homelessness and encourages others to join with us to advance economic, social and environmental conditions for health.” he said at the time.

“Giving patients access to quality care was one thing,” Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling said in a tribute after Tyson’s death. “Bernard realized that 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 saw that dramatic need firsthand in San Francisco and many of the other communities his organization serves.

Adams also cited Tyson’s role in launching Kaiser’s holistic “Thrive” campaign, which dates to 2004. As senior vice president of brand strategy at the time, “Bernard really developed the ‘Thrive’ campaign, which is a significant point in the history of this organization. We’ve always been about prevention, excellence in care, and we were one of the foremost organizations in population management. When Bernard led, along with others, the Thrive program, it really advanced the concept that people can embrace their own health.”

Work on social determinants became a natural part of ‘Thrive,’ Adams said.

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