Inside NYP: Dr. Steven J. Corwin

From Resident to President & CEO.

Portrait of Dr. Steven J. Corwin
Portrait of Dr. Steven J. Corwin

Health Matters spoke with Dr. Steven J. Corwin about his early career aspirations, current leadership role, and his plans for NewYork-Presbyterian’s future.

You talk a lot about the importance of putting patients first. What inspired you to pursue a career in medicine?

Dr. Corwin: Well, I grew up in a Jewish household in White Plains, New York, at a time when the dream of every Jewish mother was for her son to become a doctor. But aside from that, my grandfather on my father’s side died at the beginning of the Great Depression, of complications from rheumatic heart disease. When I was 11 years old, my grandfather on my mother’s side died of a heart attack. So I was intrigued by the idea of becoming a cardiologist. I felt that being a doctor would be something useful, and something that, both from the standpoint of learning about medicine and taking care of people, was very attractive. I was fortunate to be guided by a high school chemistry teacher to apply for a National Science Foundation Fellowship at Roswell Park in Buffalo. I did some research there in prostate cancer in rats. That propelled me to get into the six-year medical program at Northwestern, so that’s how my career started.

What led you to NewYork-Presbyterian?

I was a New Yorker by birth, and I wanted to go into internal medicine. Actually, my first choice, going into an internship, was Massachusetts General (in Boston). Ironically, I didn’t match there. I matched at Columbia. When I matched for cardiology fellowships, I also got rejected by Mass General and ended up doing my cardiology fellowship at Columbia. So sometimes failure’s a good thing.

How does being a product of NewYork-Presbyterian inform your approach as CEO?

First, I got unbelievable training in internal medicine at Columbia. I’ve always felt that places like ours, and certainly Weill Cornell as well, we train great residents. We train people to be terrific doctors. I don’t think that doctors are interchangeable widgets. I think that there are great doctors and not-so-great doctors, just as there are great composers and not-so-great composers, or anything else in life. So, it made me really appreciate the value of teaching hospitals, and in particular the training that I received.

Second, when I grew up in medicine, in the ’80s and early ’90s, New York was going through a very tough period. The New York Hospital, now our Weill Cornell campus, was losing $50 million a year, and they had turned things around. A little bit later, Columbia was losing $50 million a year. They had just turned it around by the time of the merger. I lived through that time at Columbia when people were wondering whether the hospital was going to close, whether it could pay its bills. That made me realize how fragile these places can be and how important financial solidity and stability is. Without that stability, you can’t invest in people, you can’t invest in resources, you can’t invest in new capital. For example, I went to one of our school-based clinics today, the JFK clinic. It’s a terrific clinic, and they do a number of great things. We subsidize them. The patients have Medicaid or no insurance. A lot of people are undocumented. We provide great care. That costs money, and when you’re struggling financially, you can’t support those types of endeavors.

Then finally, places like ours take care of everybody. I’ve said many times in town halls, “We’re an elite institution, but we’re not an elitist institution.” I had that experience as a resident and as a fellow of taking care of very poor patients. A human being is a human being, and a sick human being is a sick human being. It doesn’t matter at that point whether they have means, or they don’t have means. Your obligation as a physician and as a healer is to take care of them. As a community that heals people, we have an obligation to all the communities that we serve. I learned a lot through those years, and hopefully I’ve transferred some of that to what I think our value system, collectively, needs to be.

“A human being is a human being, and a sick human being is a sick human being. … Your obligation as a physician is to take care of them.”

— Dr. Steven J. Corwin

What value do you believe is critical to success?

We have to start with respect for each other as human beings, respect for the jobs that we all do. That’s why I feel so strongly about the [NYP RESPECT] Credo. I think that fundamentally the basis of caring for people is empathy, and empathy derives from respect. The respect has to be amongst each other as well as toward the patient.

Could you talk a bit about your vision for NewYork-Presbyterian, its six campuses and regional hospitals?

I think we have a profound obligation to deliver the best care we can to everybody who comes through our doors, and I think we have an opportunity in the region as a whole to deliver a high level of care. We’re not going to be perfect. No one is, but that’s what we should strive for, and I think that we have a critical mass of talent where I think we can provide the very best care. The fact that our 30-day mortality statistics as measured by CMS (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) are the best in the country, that shows what we’re capable of. I feel strongly that with the resources that we have, with the talent that we have, we have an obligation to deliver the very best care. You know, it’s the “your mother” test.

The “mother test?”

If your mother were in the bed, would you want her to come to NewYork-Presbyterian? I think the answer to that, by and large, is yes. Now we’re saying, “If your mother was in that bed, would you come to any NewYork-Presbyterian facility in the region?” And I think the answer to that should be, “Yes. I’m going to trust in them, and I’m going to trust in that brand. I’m going to trust that they have the best doctors, the best nurses.” … When I get a letter from families and from patients saying, “I knew I was safe when I came to your hospital,” or “I can’t believe that every interaction I had in your hospital throughout my stay or my daughter’s stay, or my husband’s stay, was a positive interaction, that people really cared about me. That the housekeeper who came in to clean my room every day asked how I was feeling,” that makes you feel good.

How does our partnership with two Ivy League medical schools — Columbia and Weill Cornell — make NewYork-Presbyterian unique?

I think that teaching institutions in general are unique. There are 400 institutions in the country out of 5,000 or so that are teaching hospitals. Of those 400, probably 30 or 40 are major academic centers, so you’re already talking about a relatively small slice of the pie. What makes those places special? You have an ability to coalesce talent that is unmatched. The great academic medical centers in this country can bring together talent that few places can. The fact that we have two such medical schools, to me, was always, “How can we, as three partners working together, do something truly unique, and develop something truly unique?” I think that our ability to say, ‘We’ve got these two great medical schools. We’ve got great physicians. We have a great value structure, and we attract the very best people who exhibit those values.’ I think that’s unique. I’m hoping, and I believe, we can scale that in the region. But that’s our challenge as a hospital.

Given the uncertain health care climate, how do you expect NewYork-Presbyterian will face those challenges?

First, I think that we’ve got a terrific product. We deliver great care. Number two, I think we’ve got a great mission. I think people realize … I hope they realize, that we take care of everybody. Thirty percent of the patients we care for are Medicaid patients, and our employees feel strongly about that. Third, I think we’ve got a terrific board. I think we’ve got a very philanthropic community, and I think that we manage the institution well. I’m confident that we’ll be able to navigate these choppy waters. Am I concerned about it? Of course. I think that creating deficiencies of insurance, paying states less in the way of Medicaid monies, taking away insurance from people, is a real problem. It breaks your heart when somebody can’t receive treatment because they’re uninsured, or they won’t go to a doctor because it’s going to break the bank. People need to realize that 40 percent of Americans cannot afford a $400 unexpected expense.

What do you enjoy most about coming to work each day?

I think we’re a special place with a special mission. The people who have preceded me, the people who will succeed me. … This is a very special job. We’re stewards of a great institution. The New York Hospital was founded in 1771. Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons is the second oldest medical school in the country. Columbia Presbyterian Hospital was founded in 1868, so I don’t want to be the guy who ruins 230 years of history. I think you feel a profound sense of obligation that you really want to deliver the place into the hands of your successor, better than it was before. I know that Dr. (Herbert) Pardes felt that way when he handed it over to me, and I will feel that way when I hand it over to my successor, because it’s a special place. It’s a unique place. And it’s a place worthy of working hard for.

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