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Sinai Chicago’s Dr. Ngozi Ezike talks transition to new role

Sinai Chicago’s Dr. Ngozi Ezike talks transition to new role

After being one of the faces of Illinois’ COVID-19 response, Dr. Ngozi Ezike announced this spring she would step down as head of the Department of Public Health.

She’s now returned to the private sector to become the CEO of Sinai Chicago, the city’s largest safety-net health system.

“​​It’s very exciting, very exhilarating,” she told Health News Illinois this week about the new role. “I thought I was drinking from a firehose in the midst of the COVID pandemic, but I found a new fire hydrant over here too. But I’m really excited to be learning and listening and just meeting all the great people that have been doing incredible work here for so long, and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

Ezike also spoke on the lessons she learned as head of IDPH, the challenges facing safety nets and what more needs to be done to address health equity.

Edited excerpts below:

HNI: What have you learned so far in your new role?

NE: I’m just seeing people who are just passionate about upholding the mission of taking care of everyone, including what we see here, which are some of the most vulnerable communities in the entire city of Chicago. And being able to continue caring for them, giving them the highest quality, that’s what everybody is committed to doing, and just looking for the ways that we can continue doing that.

HNI: What lessons have you been able to take from your time at IDPH?

NE: I think every experience that one has is a building block for something in the future. The role at IDPH was was so formative. I think I learned a lot about how to lead. I think one of the key things was how important the team (is), the power of the team and how assembling that right team is probably the most important thing you can do right off the bat. And so making sure that everyone is rowing in the same direction and that everyone has the same North Star. We all have different ideas on how to get there, but as long as we’re all looking towards that same goal, then we can use everybody’s great ideas to figure out the best way that will get us there, the most equitably and most efficiently, and that’s something that I’ll take into any role that I’m pursuing.

HNI: What are some of the main challenges facing the healthcare industry?

NE: Everyone is well versed and well steeped in the labor force issues and that’s not unique to healthcare. I think when you think about just the funding of healthcare, we have to start really thinking about what we want this to look like. Do we want to continue focusing on treating illness or do we want to focus on promoting wellness? And so as we look at those two sides of the coin, we have to be looking to healthcare institutions, policymakers, government, community organizations to think about what focusing and promoting wellness looks like, and how you support that as the goal to make sure we have healthy communities.

HNI: What are some of the unique challenges as a safety-net provider?

NE: There’s a multitude—just figuring out what lane we want to occupy. We know that there are multiple safety-net hospitals in Chicago, but we are essentially the super safety net, if you will, because we are the referral site for many of those smaller safety-net institutions in the city. So trying to be that tertiary care center for all the other safety nets, that’s a continuous challenge because that tertiary care is the most expensive care to deliver. And again, delivering it to individuals that don’t have that broad payer mix, very little-to-no commercial insurance. Almost 60 percent of our patients are Medicaid, and we know how those reimbursements work when that’s your predominant payer.

HNI: Health equity has been a key focus for yourself and Sinai Chicago. What more can be done to help address disparities like those seen on the south and west sides?

NE: Sinai Chicago is so unique in how it’s actively been addressing equity, even before everybody was talking about health equity and it became essentially the buzzword that it is now. We’ve had the Sinai Community Institute, the Urban Health Institute that are working to address equity through innovation and actual investment in the community. Sinai, Chicago actively tackled these social determinants of health. We provide transportation so that we can take away that barrier in terms of access to care. We partner with organizations in the community to affect additional options for housing, to bring grocery stores, to bring restaurants. So we are actively partnered in the community, hiring people from the community to address all these social determinants of health so that we can help the community to thrive. Because we know that when the community is doing better in terms of all those different key areas for where they’re living and working and playing, then they can take better care of their health and not delay care and can focus on wellness instead of treating illness.

HNI: Do you think enough is being done at this point to address health equity? Do you think efforts are starting to make a difference?

NE: I think everyone’s talking about it now. It can’t just be Sinai Chicago working on this issue. And the fact that this has always been an issue, but I think COVID laid bare just how significant these issues are to health, and now more people are actively engaged … we need all players and we need all hands on board. And so us all working together, seeing this as a distinct priority is only going to be to the benefit of all of these communities.

HNI: Sinai Chicago recently opened its urgent care clinic at Ogden Commons. Can you talk a bit more about that project?

NE: It allows us to have expanded access to medical-surgical and an urgent care center. It’s an incredible example of community partnership, where it’s promoting the ability for other small businesses to join into that facility. There are restaurants. There’s a coffee shop coming. There’s a bank. It allows us to ensure vitality, promote employment in an area that needs it most right here in this community. So it gives access and inclusion for communities that have kind of been on the outside looking in, and we just want to make sure that this community and other communities that look like this have all the same opportunities for healthy lives and economic well-being, and this project is just one shining example of how we get there.

HNI: Do you see that concept of mixed-use developments, with medical care and non-medical services, being something more common in the future?

NE: I think making things convenient is obviously a great thing, but I think the beauty of it is the collaboration. It’s the communion of all these different partners in the community providing all these different things that the community needs. Whether it’s in the same building or on the same block, I think it’s the partnership model that is really how we’re going to support the communities that we are nestled right in the middle of. We’re going to continue to work with our partners to have these great collaborations that will benefit the communities economically, socially and in terms of their medical health. We’ve just tried to attack all the different portions of life to make it better on all these different fronts.

HNI: Looking ahead, what are some of your near- and long-term goals for Sinai Chicago?

NE: Near-term, I want to support and promote the financial health of the system. I want us to be in a situation where we are focusing exclusively on the care and the quality of care rather than thinking about how we can keep the lights on. We need to be focused on that. But for sure, we have to continue improving the quality of services delivered and then we also need to make sure that the people who live in the community make this place their home, that you don’t have to drive, or get a ride outside of the community, when here in your backyard, you have this healthcare institution that’s ready to serve and can provide people with their needs. Long-term, we just want to be able to be in a position to be nimble, to continue evolving with the continually evolving healthcare landscape. And so we have to be able to follow trends. We have definitely seen fewer births that are happening in the city of Chicago. And so as we see how maybe the population is changing, how the needs are changing, we want to be forever evolving to match the needs of our community.

HNI: What more can policymakers do to help safety-net providers like Sinai Chicago moving forward?

NE: We were cited in the Wall Street Journal just last month that Sinai Chicago is in the top decile of the 5,000-plus hospitals in the country – top decile – in terms of the proportion of charity care that we dispense. So we are doing what everyone says is the right thing to do in terms of taking care of everyone without regard to their ability to pay. But at the end of the day, those services do cost, and there are bills that need to be paid. So if we’re going to take care of everyone and not worry about their ability to pay, we still have to have the support, and I think that that support needs to come from the community at large. It needs to come from government, all levels of government. It needs to come from community organizations. It needs to come from corporations and philanthropic organizations. So I just want us to keep moving towards that all-in, all-hands-on-deck support of institutions like us that are really doing the right thing, and we want to continue doing so.

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