Health Partner Profile – John Skerry, M.D., Physician in Chief, Kaiser Permanente, South San Francisco Medical Center With Mary Dunbar

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Over the past few months, Samaritan House has been featuring our Healthcare partners as we approach The Main Event on March 24, 2017 – Health Heroes Unmasked, What’s Your Super Power? We hope you will join us to celebrate volunteer physicians, dentists, nurses and other volunteers who have kept our Free Clinics in operation for decades. It is through their individual and collective support that tens of thousands of uninsured, low income patients have received quality, primary and specialty healthcare.

Mary Dunbar: Samaritan House is grateful for the years of support from Kaiser Permanente and for all the volunteer physicians who’ve supported our Free Clinics. How did you first become involved with us?

Dr. John Skerry: Each year our medical staff gathers to plan and prepare for the coming year. When I became Physician in Chief here five years ago, I decided I wanted to devote a chunk of that time towards getting our doctors out into the community. Now we spend time each year doing volunteer activities within the community. It was our anesthesia department that got involved in serving meals at Safe Harbor Shelter.

JS:  We also come together every March to celebrate National Physicians Day and I realized that we would get these little tchotchkes to recognize our doctors and I couldn’t believe how much money we were spending on them. Now, instead of buying tchotchkes, we make a donation to an organization where our doctors are volunteering. And so, Fan Xie, Jamila Champsi, Jerry Saliman, and Sid Rosenburg, both active and retired, were working at Samaritan House. So, we honored their work by making a donation.

JS: That’s where I think it also dovetailed nicely with the fact that we’ve been a partner with Samaritan House for several years now. It’s part of our mission. We’re trying to improve the health of the communities in which we live and work. Sometimes it’s volunteering using your own clinical skills, however, I was just as pleased when our anesthesia department went and served meals at Safe Harbor because it gets us out in the community. I’m no longer operating, but as an ophthalmologist by training, I went on several medical missions to Guatemala. As satisfying as practice is when you’re doing it as a part of your career, when you get in the places where you’re actually really doing it out of the goodness of your heart, boy, it gives back tenfold.

MD: Tell me about some of the partnerships that Kaiser is really proud of in this community?

JS:  Healthy eating is one area where we partner; we work with the Food Bank and others. We have our farmer’s market every week. And we focus on getting people active because, again, obesity is one of the big risks in San Mateo County. Our pediatricians are great about getting out in the community providing education. If our goal is to try to improve the health of the communities in which we serve, Samaritan House is the epitome of the kind of causes we like to support.

MD: What inspired Kaiser to start offering farmer’s markets?

JS: Again, it dovetails entirely with our ethic about keeping people healthy and intervening when they’re ill…it started in Oakland and stemmed from the passion of one physician, Dr. Preston Maring. He realized the Oakland Medical Center was located in a food desert so he started a farmer’s market. That idea just spread like wildfire. Now we have farmer’s markets at virtually every medical center. The markets allow local growers to participate, and since medical centers tend to be busy places, you’re pretty much guaranteed good foot traffic. It’s worked out really well.

MD: What was your first inspiration to become a doctor?

JS: Here’s a funny story…I’m the youngest of four boys, Jim, Jay, Jeff, and John. And Jim’s an engineer, Jay is a lawyer, Jeff is an accountant, and I became a doctor. My dad said he wanted to buy land in Maine and start his own town. Right? He’d have all the professions covered.

MD: That’s funny! How’d you choose Ophthalmology? Ophthalmology is very specific.

JS: I always had an interest in medicine and then, interestingly, I thought I was going to be an internist or a neurologist but then, when I did my surgery rotation, I realized I liked surgery. So, then I did an ophthalmology rotation and it appealed to my attention for detail. I liked the precision of eye surgery. It’s been incredibly satisfying.

MD: When did you begin your career at Kaiser Permanente?

JS: Quite frankly, I sort of stumbled into The Permanente Medical Group – it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. It’s an amazing group. I had grown up in the east coast, didn’t know much about Kaiser Permanente or The Permanente Medial Group. I took the job partly because it was an area of the country I wanted to live…The longer I’m here the more I’m impressed, you know? It’s been 23 years now as of December 2016, all of it at Kaiser, and all of it in South San Francisco.

MD: What do you think is unique and special about Kaiser’s South San Francisco Medical Center versus other Bay Area medical centers?

JS: There’s so many ways in which we’re unique, but I think one of the ways we really are different is that it truly is a group practice. The sense of collegiality is just amazing. It’s not something you necessarily get in every practice. What really does impress is our self-perception is that we are a local, community hospital. However, when you look at our performance, we match up against any hospital in the United States, if not the world. No joke. When you look at the rest of the nation, if someone has hypertension there’s about a 50/50 chance that it’s under control. But because of some of the leadership in this medical center, people like Dr. Mark Jaffe, we’ve embarked on a regional program to improve hypertension control. While the rest of the country is controlling hypertension at about 50%, within Kaiser Permanente Northern California it’s 85-86% controlled, that’s a huge difference. Here in South San Francisco, it’s closer to 90%. If you stacked up every medical center in the United States, you would not find many medical centers that control hypertension at a 90% rate.  I think what it shows is the power of group practice. There’s almost nothing that we accomplish based upon the heroics of any one person.

JS: Virtually everything we do is a team effort. Modern medicine is a team sport. A surgeon, Atul Gawande, at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a writer for The New Yorker authored a great article a couple years ago about medicine moving from cowboys to pit crews. It’s a big adjustment for a lot of doctors. And we’ve had pit crews all along. That’s the secret sauce for us.

MD: In your role as Physician in Chief, you’re leading teams of doctors. What does it mean to you to have your peers acknowledge and recognize you by putting you in this role?

JS: I sometimes call myself the accidental Physician in Chief, because this wasn’t the role that I was really looking for. I joined the group and I was a general ophthalmologist and I think I did a good job at that, and then I became the chief of the ophthalmology department, and again, it wasn’t something I was necessarily prepared for but I really enjoyed it. It was great fun to see things change, to see things improve. The person who was in the role before me, Michelle Caughey, who is a great mentor to me, asked me if I wanted to become one of her assistants, and I did. Thinking that was probably as far as I was going to go with it, Michelle got promoted, the opportunity arose, it was now or never, and so I threw my hat in the ring. I was just fortunate enough to have people think well enough of me that I became the Physician in Chief. That’s what I’ve just loved about my career here is the sense that I’ve been here 23 years, yes, I’ve been an ophthalmologist, but I’ve had five different careers within that time.

MD: Thank you for sharing your story with me, Dr. Skerry. We hope you’ll join us for The Main Event this year so that we can recognize you and your colleagues for being our Health Heroes!

Dr. John Skerry received his undergraduate degree (Phi Beta Kappa, Magna cum Laude) from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York and his medical degree (Alpha Omega Alpha) from Weill-Cornell Medical College in New York, New York. He completed his Ophthalmology residency training at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington. He is board certified by the American Board of Ophthalmology and is the Physician in Chief at Kaiser Permanente, South San Francisco Medical Center in South San Francisco, California.