QI enthusiast to QI leader: Luci Leykum, MD

An early interest in finding solutions shapes a prosperous career in QI and research


Editor’s Note: This ongoing series highlights the professional pathways of quality improvement leaders. This month features the story of Luci Leykum, MD, division chief, general and hospital medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio.

Luci Leykum, MD, MBA, MSc, FACP, SFHM, became familiar with inpatient medicine at age 9 years, when her grandfather contracted non-AB hepatitis from a postoperative blood transfusion. In the ensuing years, Dr. Leykum visited her grandfather during his frequent hospitalizations, keeping a close watch on the physicians charged with his care.

“It was when HIV and what we now think is hep C were just emerging, and there was a lot to figure out,” Dr. Leykum recalled of these formative experiences. Her interests in problem-solving, human relationships, and physiology led to enrollment years later as a medical student at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, where her keen observation skills led to a life-changing, “how did we get here?” moment.

Dr. Luci Leykum

Dr. Luci Leykum

“I was amazed at how things in the hospital system could work so well and so poorly at the same time and [at] how many [processes] weren’t useful to clinicians or patients,” said Dr. Leykum, who began asking her attending physicians at Presbyterian Hospital what it would take to change the system. When the answers didn’t come, Dr. Leykum decided to enroll in the MBA program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business to add knowledge of operations and process management to her skillset.

Shortly before Dr. Leykum entered residency in 1999, New York Hospital and Columbia Presbyterian Hospital announced that they were merging. The timing was ideal for someone with Dr. Leykum’s acumen in business and medicine, and, as a resident, she began working with the chief medical officer for quality at the new, combined health system to identify quality improvement opportunities.

From there, the projects began pouring in: tracking phone hold times for residents; updating policies to reduce staff exposure to blood-borne pathogens and other infectious diseases; and monitoring flow through the hospitalization process. “In the progression of a few years, I was able to see important aspects of how the system came together,” said Dr. Leykum, “and how decisions were made around standards and metrics for the system as a whole and for its multiple individual hospital facilities.”

In 2004, two years out of residency, Dr. Leykum relocated to San Antonio to accept a clinician investigator position with the South Texas Veterans Health Care System/University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio (UTHSCSA). Research, she said, has allowed her to delve deeper into the underlying mechanisms that impact systems of health care. She sees the complementary sides of quality improvement and research.

“Through our quality improvement initiatives, we can evaluate and improve specific aspects of care, in specific contexts or systems,” Dr. Leykum explained. “In our research projects, we look for new insights that can be more broadly applied across contexts. With funding, you are able to look at things with a scope, depth, or time horizon beyond what you typically have with a QI project.”

Since joining the UTHSCSA/VA system, Dr. Leykum has participated in more than 15 externally funded studies, 6 as principal investigator. She joined SHM’s research committee in 2009, serving as chair for 6 years, and is currently working with the committee to implement the Improving Hospital Outcomes through Patient Engagement (i-HOPE) Study.

I-HOPE, funded through the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, is a project to develop a patient- and stakeholder-partnered research agenda to improve the care of hospitalized patients. Dr. Leykum is also involved in implementing a collaborative care model at University Health System, a patient-partnered, interprofessional model that “focuses on improving interconnections, relationships, and sense making,” in the hospital system, she explained. “It was motivated strongly by our desire to improve our partnerships with patients and other providers in the hospital as a strategy to improve care.”

In addition to the many professional responsibilities she manages as division chief of general and hospital medicine at UTHSCSA – a position she has held for hospital medicine since 2006 and for the combined division since 2016 – Dr. Leykum continues to play an integral role in multiple academic and research initiatives for SHM.

She encourages anyone considering a concentration in QI and research to seek opportunities to actively learn these skills and, more importantly, let other people know their interests.

“The value of talking with colleagues at other places is so high,” she said. “When you actively reach out, you find that most people are happy to share their knowledge. Networking is one of the best parts of the SHM annual meeting – there’s an energy and excitement in learning about what others are doing. Wander into the poster and special interest sessions and see what people are working on, get email addresses, and participate on committees.”

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