Mount Carmel's new CEO says he caught the healthcare bug in part from a TV show about a fictional doctor.

Mount Carmel's new CEO says he caught the healthcare bug in part from a TV show about a fictional doctor.

After raising their kids and taking care of an aging parent, Ed and Debbie Lamb are “together alone” again, on a second honeymoon of sorts in their new home in New Albany. They're taking walks, exploring Columbus' food scene and, after Ed's days on the job as the new CEO at Mount Carmel Health System, cooking dinner and watching a little TV.

And they're very much looking forward to a succession of children and grandchildren scheduled to visit during spring breaks. The couple might enjoy their newfound together-aloneness, but Ed Lamb describes their basement as a “children's center” and says they're stocked up with memberships to COSI and the Columbus Zoo & Aquarium for the weeks they're together-together again with their three married children, a son- and two daughters-in-law, their seven grandchildren, and an eighth on the way.

“I've been spending every Saturday either going to Ikea or putting stuff together,” Lamb says of what sounds like a mini-COSI taking root below his living room.

Mondays through Fridays, though, he's making the rounds of Mount Carmel's 69 facilities—four hospitals and 65 primary- and specialty-care offices—and charting the course for the $3.4 billion not-for-profit provider that counts 1.2 million patient visits annually. He's giving “Ed Talks” and taking selfies with the people he meets as he begins to address issues such as system expansion and another round of healthcare reform.

“We did not want a CEO who would be sitting in an office locked away from everyone,” says Lisa Stein, chairwoman of the Mount Carmel board and founder of Revolutions, a Columbus-based provider of durable medical equipment. “Ed wants to get to know people. He is not shy.”

On the wall of Lamb's office at Mount Carmel's East Side headquarters, handwritten messages on the framed going-away photos from past jobs show the connections he has forged during his career. He came to Columbus from Salt Lake City, where he was president of the Western Division of IASIS Healthcare, which operates 17 hospitals in six states.

Thanks for your support. Thanks for fostering my growth. Thank you for your example and leadership. Thank you for your mentorship and for giving me a shot. Thank you for being a boss who trusts his people.

“My leadership style is really about trying to create an environment and culture that helps people rise to their highest level of potential,” says Lamb, who also served as CEO at medical facilities in Anchorage, Alaska; Corpus Christi, Texas; Chandler, Ariz.; Phoenix; and Vacherie, La. “I like to look at people not as they are today but what they can become tomorrow. … I want to make a difference, and the only way we can be effective in doing that is by energizing other people.”

Lamb first was inspired by a fictional TV doctor. And when he's told that he describes the nation's $3.2 trillion modern healthcare industry in a way that would make Marcus Welby proud, he laughs.

“As a kid I watched ‘Marcus Welby' all the time. I always wanted to be Marcus Welby,” he says of the 1970s TV drama about a kindly California doctor who still made house calls. “I wanted to be a pediatrician. That is how I started thinking about healthcare. I was a junior volunteer, volunteered thousands of hours at a hospital in Las Vegas, where I grew up.”

Lamb earned a bachelor's degree in medical technology from Utah's Brigham Young University. He was working as a medical technologist at a small hospital in Orem, Utah, when he decided to take his career in a different direction.

“After I had my third child, I realized I could not divorce my emotional energies from a hurting baby and be an effective physician.” As Lamb has done for others since, the head of the hospital “recognized, I guess, some potential there” and suggested he pursue healthcare leadership and administration. “He gave me some opportunities. I went back to get my master's degree, and the rest is history. Thirty-two years later, here I am.”

In Columbus, Lamb is experiencing a few career firsts. He's running an entire health system for the first time. The self-described “desert rat” from Nevada is living and working for the first time east of the Mississippi River after jobs in Alaska, Utah, Arizona, Texas and Louisiana. And he's a Mormon in charge of a Catholic health network, the first faith-based provider for which he has worked.

Lamb feels no disconnect between his own faith and the faith that drives Mount Carmel. But he says he wanted to address any concerns others might have had, so he brought up the question himself during his interview with the health system's board.

“There are certain HR things you're not going to ask in an interview,” he says. “I said, ‘Look, I know there are things you want to ask me that you can't, so I'm giving you permission to do that.' … I said what I understand about both of our religions is we're both more closely aligned than we're not. Our faith and our belief is really what drives us and motivates us and helps us do the things we do.”

More specifically, Lamb says: “We both reverence the sanctity of life. We both have a very, very strong foundation in family. We both believe that core values should drive the way we act and behave.” Adding a faith component to medical care, he says, allows Mount Carmel to heal people as well as cure them.

While Lamb speaks of healthcare in terms that belie its modern complexity—“to me, eyes-to-eyes, nose-to-nose, toes-to-toes is critically important”—Stein says Lamb's strategic vision is one of the things that won him the CEO's job at Mount Carmel. The system is making huge investments in new facilities, she says, but a developing round of healthcare reform leaves executives unsure how Mount Carmel will be paid in the future for the care it provides.

“It's nice to have someone with Ed's level of experience,” the board chair says.

Lamb also embraces innovation, declaring himself an arch-enemy of “bettawatty,” his pronunciation of the acronym BTTWWADI, which stands for “But That's the Way We've Always Done It.” Simple changes such as “bedside reporting,” in which nurses on incoming and outgoing shifts go room to room to discuss care with each hospital patient, keep patients and families informed and involved, he says. And families are encouraged to write questions and comments on the whiteboards in every patient's room.

“We want to make sure that we are listening, that we are involving people,” he says. “In the past, sometimes you just said, ‘Uh-huh, uh-huh, and did everything the doctor or nurse said. We want people to become more engaged in their care.”

As the current chairman of the 40,000-member American College of Healthcare Executives, Lamb also has encouraged his fellow professionals to get more engaged in the national healthcare debate, particularly to push back against what he sees as a negative undercurrent. He worries that constant focus on problems of the US system will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, that practitioners will get discouraged and create a downward spiral in quality of care.

Lamb says he's proud of the work US hospitals are doing to battle opioid addiction. Advances in treatment and technology that began in this country have helped people worldwide, he adds. And while he acknowledges room for improvement in the Affordable Care Act—too many healthcare cooperatives have failed, and premiums in the healthcare marketplace have risen higher, faster than employer-sponsored plans—Lamb lauds its expansion of coverage, guarantee of portability and inclusion of children under their parents' coverage up to age 26.

“I really get annoyed when I hear dialogue that goes on and says healthcare in the United States is a disaster,” he says. “I beg to differ. … We need to focus on the great things that we're doing. We need to tell that story. And we also need to focus on the things that we have challenges with and do a better job.”

Touting successes is something that goes for Mount Carmel as well, Lamb says.

“Mount Carmel doesn't tell its story very well. There are incredible things going on in this organization that nobody knows about,” he says, ticking off a list of recent honors and achievements. “My vision for the organization is very simple. It's focused around this saying: I don't care about being the biggest. I care about being the best.”

Bob Vitale is associate editor.