In this episode of Fireside Chat, we sat down with Michele Baker Richardson, J.D., Board Chair-Elect, AdvocateAuroraHealth, and President and CEO, Higher Education Advocates, LLC, to discuss how healthcare boards are handling the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Please note: The number of COVID-19 cases and the situation referenced in this episode were based on reported data at the time of the interview and are subject to change.


Michele Richardson 0:00
The first thing that we thought about again, we were just together, was the safety of our caregivers, the people who are our team members, and who are out there every day on the frontlines. That was the number one priority for each and every one of our board members and the safety of our patients who really entrust us with their care.

Gary Bisbee 0:22
That was Michelle Baker Richardson, Board Chair-Elect, AdvocateAuroraHealth, and President and CEO Higher Education Advocates, speaking about the board of directors top priority during the COVID-19 outbreak, which is ensuring the safety of caregivers, employees, and patients. I’m Gary Bisbee, and this is Fireside Chat. Let’s now listen to Michelle and what she finds the most rewarding about serving on a health system board of directors.

Michele Richardson 0:47
You never get bored. There are great questions and you really have an opportunity to impact the lives of people and communities really at their most vulnerable.

Gary Bisbee 0:58
Governance of any healthcare organization has top priorities are protecting the organization and its assets, recruiting, retaining, and evaluating the CEO and working closely with management on the strategy and budget. During a crisis like the COVID-19 outbreak, the board is an all-important representative of the health system to the community. Michelle is experienced, thoughtful, and knowledgeable, and she has served as a health system director for 16 years. She’s been a Board Chair of Advocate Health System, a predecessor organization to AdvocateAuroraHealth, where she is chair-elect. Let’s welcome Michelle Richardson.

Well, good morning, Michelle. How are you?

Michele Richardson 1:39
Good morning, Gary. I am doing well. Just every day but the sun is shining. I’m happy to be here. So glad to be here with you this morning.

Gary Bisbee 1:47
Well, good for you. We were both talking before about how fast things are moving and you were saying that you had a board meeting a week and a half ago and it seems like a year since then. Things are moving so quickly.

Michele Richardson 1:59
Why That’s exactly right. It’s just about a little over 10 days and the world has certainly shifted under our feet. We are all adjusting to the new normal.

Gary Bisbee 2:08
Exactly. We’ll get back to that in terms of your board work. Let’s talk about you. You grew up in Queens and went to school in the East but you’ve lived in Chicago for 25 years. How do you view yourself as a Midwestern or an Easterner?

Michele Richardson 2:23
Well, you know, once an Easterner probably always an Easterner, but I have lived on the East Coast and grew up on the East Coast, originally from New York. Lived on the West Coast for a little bit of time, but I have spent more time in the Midwest than anywhere else. So I am certainly stamped with East Coast sensibilities but happy to have spent lots of time in the Midwest. I married a Midwestern- that’s how I got here.

Gary Bisbee 2:48
Well, they are good people, aren’t they?

Michele Richardson 2:50
They are, indeed. Salt of the earth.

Gary Bisbee 2:53
You went to Brown and then off to Yale Law School, why law?

Michele Richardson 2:57
So you know, it’s a great story. I actually started out working in advertising and marketing, and we’ll connect that to my current work. But I worked in New York on Madison Avenue for a division of Young and Rubicam, actually when I came out of school. Had some great clients but ended up doing a bit of legal clearance work as an assistant account executive and loved the questions that law post about, about why things were being done certain kinds of ways. I loved the thought. So from there decided to go and work for a law firm for a bit and from there on to law school. But I like the questioning. I like the kinds of questions that law asked.

Gary Bisbee 3:40
Did you practice law then after law school?

Michele Richardson 3:44
I did. I did. I actually practice health law. I was at Hogan Lovells then Hogan and Hartson in Washington, DC during the Clinton healthcare era. And actually had lots of fun working with healthcare clients who were starting the mergers process, starting to form IPAs at that time and actually met my husband who was just finishing medical school at that time finishing his residency in Washington, DC. But we were, it was a very interesting time in healthcare. The business of healthcare was changing then as now very rapidly. And so, that was a fun time to be there and practice law.

Gary Bisbee 4:26
Well, you ultimately ended up a dean of students at the University of Chicago Law School which triggered off your interest in Higher Education Advocates, your current firm. Can you share with us a little bit about Higher Education Advocates, Michelle? what prompted you to found it and what business are you in?

Michele Richardson 4:44
Of course, Higher Education Advocates is a strategic admission consulting firm. During my time I actually left the practice of law to go and teach health law. My passion has always been about really educating the next generation and preparing students for the future ahead of them. I had the opportunity to really touch the lives of more than 600 students per year, while I was dean of students at the University of Chicago. Met students from every type of background from all over the world, and really believed that there was a need for more strategic thinking around the choices you were making in higher education. Especially when we consider the cost, like the cost in healthcare. I thought it was a really important time to think strategically and wanted to bring my skills in business and in law and indeed in marketing, to the admissions process to help people think really carefully about the choices they were making, and then help them realize their dreams in terms of those choices. How to market themselves to the schools that they had so carefully selected. So that’s where we started. At the same time I learned that schools were trying to make sure that they were attracted to the kinds of students that they wanted to fill their classes. And so I found myself with skills that allowed me to work on both sides of the fence as it were. So a really wonderful opportunity started with some small clients, some University clients and some individual clients and my business has grown. I’ve worked with students all over the world and have over the past nine years touched about 2,000 students in total. So it’s really been a wonderful experience.

Gary Bisbee 6:28
Congratulations, that’s terrific. And you said now you’ve continued to track some of these students’ centers now and in a career coaching phase, it sounds like?

Michele Richardson 6:37
Absolutely. I have been asked to… once in many students’ lives, you continue, you’re always a touchstone for them and at their request, I have begun to do some early career coaching with those students and really just helping them think through the next steps. When you start thinking strategically, you realize that it’s about your life and about your next steps. That it always benefits you to have a team of advisers. And so I have become one of those professional advisors to many of my former students who are now coaching clients.

Gary Bisbee 7:11
Well, it’s an exciting role that you’re in and a great idea to found Higher Education Advocates. Congratulations. If we could springboard from that to your role as a health system trustee, what prompted you to join the advocate health systems board that’s the predecessor to Advocate Aurora Health.

Michele Richardson 7:30
I actually started Gary on one of our hospital boards. Again, I was teaching health law. I was teaching corporate health. I was teaching a mergers course. And at this time, our hospital, one of the small hospitals advocate South Suburban Hospital, had just joined the advocate health system family, and we were in a period of rapid growth and acquisition, acquiring a lot of small community hospitals, and the hospital was really looking for legal expertise, people who understood that world. And again, coming from the practice in that area, I had some expertise. And it was, again, these were just great questions to begin to answer. And they were looking for people who helped, who could help them understand what it would be like to merge into a larger system. And so that’s really why I joined the board. I joined because I thought I could be. I’ve always participated and been a community board member in many different facets. I’ve worked on community boards for schools and churches and, and this was an extension of that. And it was an opportunity to use a skill that I had to benefit a community and I was only on that community board for about a year and a half. And then I was asked to join the system board for the larger system. And that has just been a really rewarding experience; incredibly rewarding. Never a dull moment, as it had not since 2004.

Gary Bisbee 8:57
Well, for sure. And of course with Jim Skogsbergh as the CEO you have a terrific CEO there, which I’m sure makes it interesting and rewarding. But specifically, what have you found? Michelle, through the years, what’s been the most rewarding aspect of sitting on the health system board?

Michele Richardson 9:15
There is never a dull moment. The world of healthcare has been really in constant motion since that time. So you never get bored. There are great questions. And you really have an opportunity to impact the lives of people and communities really at their most vulnerable. The impact that you have, you can really see the impact. We used to meet in all of our different hospitals. And each time you went to a hospital when we were a smaller system, you know, you really you could see the impact that your decisions were having on patients and the caregivers and it was really among the most rewarding work that I’ve ever done. Outstanding.

Gary Bisbee 9:56
To flip that. Let’s think about challenges. What have you found is the most challenging part? I’m sure time and the fast complexity of the business, but what’s been the most challenging, Michele?

Michele Richardson 10:10
I actually have enjoyed the complexity. It definitely has been challenging, as I’m running my own business, to balance the increasing demands of a health system board, but a joy, you come to this work because you love it, not because it is work. It really feels like a labor of love. The challenges with the health system board, hospitals have operated the same way for a very long time. And there’s been a real need to become more business savvy and to understand how to do things differently. So the pace of change has been not challenging for me as a board member, but it’s been challenging to see how slowly things can move when there is a real need for things to move a little bit more rapidly. So that’s probably been the most challenging. Health System boards have been the same for a very long time and had really rotating membership and making sure that you had folks who were kind of forward-thinking and looking at the future vision of healthcare. Really, really important. Making sure you have the right folks in the room to make decisions for the next 20 years or so that’s been the most challenging piece.

Gary Bisbee 11:25
You’ve been Chair of the advocate health systems board. What have you found there are your main responsibilities as Chair?

Michele Richardson 11:34
the key responsibility as Chair, one is to have the right folks in the room. So a little bit about board recruitment. It is mostly about making sure that you are and that you’ve already mentioned Jim Skogsbergh, selecting and supporting your CEO, and making sure that you’re asking you are a thought partner, and you’re asking the right kinds of questions to help your CEO address the challenges before them which are many. So the biggest responsibility is there. And then to strategically advise the organization more generally. So you are setting the strategy but you really are advising and your thought partner, I think that’s really the best way to think about it. As a board chair, you are a key thought partner to the CEO of the company. Really important.

Gary Bisbee 12:26
I think that’s a great way to look at it. Moving on to the corona-virus outbreak. What do you think about that in your role as a board member? What specific responsibilities do you think that the board has in a time like this?

Michele Richardson 12:43
Absolutely. Well, the key concern our CEO, if you’ve ever heard him speak, he says, “We are first and foremost a safe clinical enterprise.” And so the first thing that we thought about again, we were just together, was the safety of our caregivers. The people who are team members and who are out there every day on the front lines. That was the number one priority for each and every one of our board members, and the safety of our patients who really entrust us with their care. So those two were our very first considerations. And then, you know, with a long term disruptive challenge, like corona-virus, and we’ve had things that have approximated but not quite been this before. You have to look at your fiduciary responsibility. How is this going to impact the bottom line? What adjustments do you need to make now to make sure that you are prepared for the financial implications of something that is this disruptive? So those are the two key things that we have been talking about and thinking about and really proactive in both areas.

Gary Bisbee 13:50
Have you had a virtual board meeting yet?

Michele Richardson 13:52
Gary, we have. We happened to be together at a time and kudos to our executive team. They really got us started very quickly with using iPads and they installed a secure base for us to have virtual meetings. We actually had our first phone call and have a virtual meeting coming up. We’ve already had a call about the Coronavirus for an update and to answer some key questions and we have another set up for this week. So I actually have a short executive committee call later on today that will be virtual and, you know, face to face.

Gary Bisbee 14:29
So any tips for other board members, Michelle on how you can manage through a virtual meeting?

Michele Richardson 14:36
Absolutely. My number one tip Gary is mute your phone. That is my number one tip. It can be a little challenging when you are not face to face, to figure out who to call on. But if you have one person who is really guiding the meeting, that’s your chair, that’s going to really help you move through the agenda and then there’s also the possibility of chatting while you’re on. So if people have questions that they may not want to raise with the entire group, they can chat you on the side. And looking at your camera, if you are visual to make sure that you know where the camera is and to look into the camera, that’s another great tip. But be patient. This is the wave of the future. So this is where we’re going and patience will get you there.

Gary Bisbee 15:24
Yeah, that’s an interesting point. Michelle, what key questions about coronavirus Is the board asking? What are some of the questions that they have an interest in?

Michele Richardson 15:36
So we are looking at, again, we’re talking about the safety of our healthcare workers. So the first questions are about testing. We’re, you know, trying to understand when tests will be available, where they will be administered, making sure that all of our sites will have access, where’s information available, how things are being communicated, both internally and externally. So we really have an eye on those kinds of key questions. Again, with the testing question, we’re dealing with both our federal and state governments, but we are developing internal testing capability as well. And so that was our key question, again, dealing with safety. And then the other questions about how we are going to manage our team members when we have challenges in terms of personnel? So surge, how will we handle our employees and make sure that we have enough employees and facilities we’re asking questions about the supply chain? How are we fixed for the key items: ventilators and masks. We actually have a board member who did quite a bit of business in China and is helping us to think through how we will supply our hospitals and our facilities. We have, you know, we are well prepared, but we are trying to make sure that we’re thinking forward and then we’re asking key questions about finance. What are the kinds of things that we need to do? Should we be drawing down on lines of credit, etc, to make sure that we are well prepared? Estimating the cost and modeling some of those kinds of questions. So that’s really where we’re going in terms of the Coronavirus questions. We know there’s a lot of uncertainty but we are trying to look at several different scenarios from a finance perspective and otherwise. Yet our investment portfolio and unfortunately, you know, our strategies are working for us as well as they can given where we are right now.

Gary Bisbee 17:38
Well, that’s good, but the follow-up question is where do you get information about Coronavirus? I mean, obviously, newspapers and so on, but are there any special sources of information that you go to?

Michele Richardson 17:51
We are getting our information from the CDC and then we have Washington, our internal person who is dealing with lobbying in Washington is really on the ground. She is supplying us with information and we get weekly updates from our CEO, and really kind of letting us know she is in touch with our state. Our governors of both states have been really a key advisor to both governors as they’ve been setting policy. So we are getting information as quickly as possible. And he’s been wonderful about not only weekly updates but to the extent that information is happening more rapidly. We’re getting updates from him as quickly as we can, but we are looking at the CDC website and then our Advocate Aurora website is being updated daily with new information. And so that’s another place for us to go for information about what is happening.

Gary Bisbee 18:45
One other quick question. So what is the policy now that you’ve adopted at Advocate Aurora health?

Michele Richardson 18:51
We moved very quickly to remote work, even before it was required. We are now and in the state of Illinois, we have a stay at home policy. State of Wisconsin is still considering but our CEO has advised along with other health care professionals, that this is a strategy that is, you know, almost necessary to prevent our health systems from becoming overwhelmed. But we very quickly moved at Advocate Aurora to non-essential employees who are working from home. We have secure databases and they are all able to work from home. And then fortunately for our patients, but we have many workers who must be at work to care for our patients. So lots of essential employees. And to the extent that they are exposed, we are making sure that they are self-isolating and they are getting the care that they need. They’re able to stay at home with pay. So we are making sure that our associates are taken care of and our patients are being taken care of.

Gary Bisbee 19:54
Well, that’s a good place to land, Michelle. Nice summary and we do very much appreciate your time this morning. You’ve done a terrific job on the board at Advocate health system and now Advocate Aurora Health. So I know Jim and the others are delighted to have you there.

Michele Richardson 20:11
Well, thank you, Gary. It is always my pleasure to talk to you and it continues to be my honor and privilege to serve on this board. I can’t think of more important work. So happy to do this and happy to chat with you.

Gary Bisbee 20:25
This episode of fireside chat is produced by Strafire. Please subscribe to Fireside Chat on Apple podcasts or wherever you’re listening right now. Be sure to rate and review fireside chat so we can continue to explore key issues with innovative and dynamic healthcare leaders. In addition to subscribing and rating, we have found that podcasts are known through word of mouth. We appreciate your spreading the word to friends or those who might be interested Fireside Chat is brought to you from our nation’s capital in Washington DC, where we explore the intersection of healthcare, politics, financing, and delivery. For additional perspectives on health policy and leadership. Read my weekly blog Bisby’s brief. For questions and suggestions about fireside chat contact me through our website, fireside chat podcast dot com, or Gary at hm Academy dot com. Thanks for listening.

Transcribed by Otter