Setting the table for over 2 decades
I first met Larry in the spring of 1998 after I had made a presentation to the American College of Physicians’ Board of Regents on the Society for Hospital Medicine’s (then the National Association of Inpatient Physicians) new position statement that referral to hospitalists by primary care physicians should be voluntary. At the time, a number of managed care companies around the United States were compelling primary care physicians to use hospitalists to care for their hospitalized patients apparently because they felt hospitalists could do it more efficiently. SHM became the first professional society to voice the position which in turn was broadly endorsed by physician organizations, including the American Medical Association and the ACP.
Larry sought me out, engaged with me, and handed me his business card. He seemed keen on becoming a part of the rapidly accelerating hospitalist movement and, in retrospect, putting his signature on it. He had recently built and exited from a very large and successful independent physician association during the heyday of California managed care and was eager for a new challenge.
Unlike me, who was just a few years out of residency, Larry was at the height of his professional powers, with the right blend of experience on the one hand and energy on the other to take on a project like SHM.
Larry’s first contribution came in the form of facilitating a 2-day strategic planning meeting with the SHM board in the fall of 1998. John Nelson, MD, had moved to Philadelphia for 3 months to establish the operational foundation of SHM and guide SHM’s first staff member, Angela Musial. One of the most notable achievements during that time was a strategic planning board meeting, which largely set the course for SHM’s early years. Larry was a taskmaster, forcing us to make tough choices about what we wanted to accomplish and to establish concrete goals with timelines and milestones. The adult supervision Larry brought was a new and vital thing for us.
There was a lot at stake in ’97, ‘98, and ‘99. The demand for hospitalists across the nation was skyrocketing and there was a strong need for leadership and bold direction. Academics, community-based hospitalists, pediatricians, entrepreneurs, nonphysician hospital team members, heads of organized medicine, and government and industry leaders were just some of the key stakeholders looking for a seat at the HM table. That table would go on to be set for some 2 decades by Larry Wellikson.
From the beginning, many observers remarked that SHM had established an aggressive agenda. There was an unrelenting need to erect a big tent as a home for diverse stakeholders. John and I and the SHM board were doing all we could to continue to build momentum while also leading our local hospitalist groups and trying to maintain a semblance of balance with our young families back home.
It was against this backdrop, in late 1999, while on yet another flight crisscrossing the country to promote HM and SHM, that John; Bob Wachter, MD (who had by that time replaced John and I as SHM president); and I decided we needed a full-time CEO. By that time, each of us had participated in conversations with Larry. We rapidly decided, with buy-in from the board, that we would offer Larry the position. He accepted and became CEO in January 2000.
To list here all of Larry’s accomplishments since taking the helm at SHM would be impossible. Indeed, all that SHM has achieved is closely tied to Larry. Instead, I would like to call out character traits Larry brought to SHM that are now part of SHM’s DNA and a large part of the reason SHM has been so successful over the past 20 years.
Solution oriented. SHM’s culture has always been to take conditions as they are and work to make things better. There is no place for excessively airing grievances and complaining about “what is being done to us.”
Eschewing the status quo. We can do better. There is too much that needs to be done to wait.
Appropriately irreverent of the norms of the medical establishment. Physicians are by nature careful, plodding, considered, cautious, and methodical. The velocity of change in HM called for a different approach in order to be relevant, one better characterized as the move-fast-and-break-things ethos of a Silicon Valley startup.
Bringing diverse stakeholders to the table. A signature move has been to assemble influential people to lay out the issues before setting a course of action.
Strong bias to action. There is a time to analyze and discuss, but all of this ultimately is in service of taking action to achieve a tangible result.
Working to achieve consensus to a point, then moving forward. Considerable resources have been put into bringing stakeholders together, studying problems, and gaining a common understanding of issues. But this has never been at the expense of taking bold action, even if controversial at times.
Involving industry in creative ways to the benefit of patients. SHM pioneered an approach to use resources gained through industry partnerships to perform national scale improvement activities with groups of hospitalist mentor-experts working with local teams to make care more reliable for patients.
Tirelessly connecting to frontline hospitalists. The lifeblood of SHM is frontline hospitalists. Larry has taken the time to develop relationships with as many as possible, often through personally visiting their communities.
Dr. Whitcomb is chief medical officer at Remedy Partners in Darien, Conn., and cofounder and past president of SHM.
By John Nelson, MD, MHM
You probably know a few people with a magnetic personality. Larry Wellikson is the neodymium variety. Boundless energy, confidence that he has the answer or knows exactly where to find it, and ability to instantly recall every conversation he’s had with you, are traits that have energized his years leading SHM and have led countless people to regard him as friend and mentor.
Watch him at the SHM annual conference. There he goes, fast walking to his next commitment while facing backward to complete from a growing distance the conversation with a person he just bumped into along the way. It is like this for Larry from 6 a.m. until midnight. Like Alexander Hamilton, “the man is nonstop.”
Bill Campbell was the “Trillion Dollar Coach” who had his own success as a business leader, but is best known for mentoring Steve Jobs, the Google founders, and many others who went on to become titans of tech. Larry is hospital medicine’s “Coach,” and has inspired and guided the careers of so many clinicians, administrators, and entrepreneurs in hospital medicine and health care more broadly.
The biggest difference between these two highly effective leaders and mentors might be money; SHM has paid him pretty well, but alas, no stock options.
Larry is a great storyteller, and it doesn’t take long for a conversation with him to arrive at the point where he cites the example of how issues faced by someone else have parallels to your situation, the advice he gave that person, and how things turned out. Mostly this advice is about navigating professional life, but he is also happy to share wisdom about parenting, marriage, money, and sports. And most any other topic.
Larry was very accomplished even prior to connecting with SHM. He had a thriving clinical career, and though he left practice long ago he has maintained a close connection with many people he first met when they were his patients. I was surprised years ago when he drove up a new top-of-the-line Lexus – the two-seater with the solid convertible roof that folded into the trunk with the push of a button. I expressed surprise that he’d buy such a swanky car and he explained that a former patient, now long-time friend, was a Lexus distributor and arranged for Larry to drive it away for something like the cost of a Camry.
He also had terrific success forming and leading a large California independent physician association prior to connecting with SHM. Just ask him to show you the magazine with him on the cover and a glowing article detailing his accomplishments. Seriously, ask him, there’s a good chance he’ll have a copy with him.
When Dr. Win Whitcomb and I were trying to figure out how to start a new medical society and position our field to mature into a real specialty we were lucky enough to connect with many health care leaders who we thought could help. Most tended to pat us on the shoulder and say something along the lines of “good luck with your little hobby, now I have to get back to my important work.” But here was Larry with his impressive resume, having served as one of the leaders who crafted the merger of two giant medical societies (ACP and the American Society of Internal Medicine), keenly interested in our tiny new organization, and excited to serve as facilitator for our first strategic planning session.
SHM got a turbocharger when Larry signed on. For me it has felt like speeding down a highway, top down, radio blasting great music, and happy anticipation of what is around the next corner. I have never been disappointed, and certainly don’t plan to get out of Larry’s car just because he’s retiring as CEO.
Dr. Nelson is cofounder and past president of SHM and principal in Nelson Flores Hospital Medicine Consultants in La Quinta, Calif.