Dr. Airica Steed, who took the reins of MetroHealth System in December, is the first Black woman and nurse to serve as CEO of the system. She has a doctorate in education.
In her first 30 days, she has faced big challenges: a campus renovation, a health-care worker shortage and a controversy surrounding her predecessor, Dr. Akram Boutros.
As part of her first 100 days in office – during which she is focused on listening and engaging staff and community – Steed held a series of interviews with reporters Friday. She discussed her transition and the hospital’s future. She also highlighted her commitment to eliminating barriers to health care, lessening disparities in health outcomes and better serving the uninsured and poor.
In September, the hospital named Steed CEO after a nationwide search. Her original start date was Jan. 1, 2023, but she began a month early after the board of trustees ousted Boutros.
The board accused Boutros of paying himself $1.9 million in bonuses between 2018 and 2022 without the board’s knowledge. An investigative report by the law firm Tucker Ellis says that Boutros repaid the money, plus interest, in October 2022. Boutros disputes the board’s claims and said his compensation package allowed it. Boutros has filed two lawsuits against the board, including one seeking millions in damages for defamation.
In 2021, Boutros announced his plan to retire as CEO at the end of 2022. He joined the hospital in 2014 and oversaw the health system’s transformation of its 52-acre main campus on W. 25th Street in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood.
Over the course of his tenure, he guided the hospital through financial hardships, the COVID-19 pandemic and the Cuyahoga County jail crisis and launched the Institute of H.O.PE in 2019, which called on major healthcare institutions in Cleveland to address the root causes of poor health by improving wellness and support services outside of traditional health care. Dr. Nabil Cheade operated as the hospital’s interim CEO until Steed’s arrival.
Steed’s core priority as CEO centers on health equity
Steed’s passionate fight for health equity began within her family.
Both of Steed’s grandmothers died of breast cancer. Her mother died at age 46 of a rare cancer after being misdiagnosed and not having information for early treatment options. A year ago, her sister died at age 39 from metastatic breast cancer after being denied early screenings despite the family’s history.
Steed experienced her own medical complications during two of her pregnancies– preeclampsia, a complication caused by high blood pressure, which resulted in premature births for her two of her children.
“I have been impacted,” Steed wrote in a recent blog post from MetroHealth. “It motivated me. It encouraged me. It pointed me in the direction of ‘I have to fix the brokenness of the system.’”
Steed was previously executive vice president and system chief operating officer of Sinai Chicago Health System and president of Mount Sinai and Sinai Children’s Hospital. In her previous role, she improved the hospital’s performance from F to C+ and worked with local businesses to provide transportation resources for patients seeking outpatient, non-emergency services.
Prior to joining Sinai Chicago, she held a variety of teaching positions in nursing, healthcare management and consulting at various academic institutions, including the University of Illinois Chicago. In 2022, Steed was named as a notable Black Leader and Executive in Crain’s Chicago and is recognized by Becker Hospital Review as one of 75 Black Health Care Leaders of Note. Steed is a fourth-generation nurse who believes her experiences help shape her leadership.
In an interview with Signal Cleveland on Friday, Steed addressed a half-dozen topics.
(The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)
On the board of trustees oversight and bonus pay:
The controversy has been complicated and challenging, but I can tell you wholeheartedly that the board has sounded the alarm. Everyone from the top of the organization on down is taking this matter seriously. We’ve already enlisted a third-party auditor to really do a comprehensive, thorough review and to really trust and validate that we’re moving forward in the right way. I’m pretty encouraged by the process. I have full confidence that the board made the right decision. At the end of the day, we’re going to do what’s right and what’s best for the organization and community.
On the services MetroHealth provides to the Cuyahoga County jail:
Correctional medicine and our relationship with the county jail is a pretty significant relationship. And who better than MetroHealth to be on the forefront of providing that care? Just like everything else that we provide, we want to provide exceptional, high-quality outcomes, high-quality experiences. We’re evaluating how we can continue to expand, grow, develop and enhance what we’re doing to make it better.
On caring for MetroHealth’s frontline workers:
I’ve put a premium on people’s engagement. I’ve been here for 30 days, but I most certainly hit the ground sprinting. And one of the first stops is on getting to know, listening, learning and praising the people and the frontline heroes that are doing the great work every single day.
So from that perspective, it is extremely important to me that our workers have an opportunity to be heard and listened to, which is part of why I’m prioritizing my initial time. This will continue because it’s a part of my leadership style on getting to know the inner workings of the organization. Ensuring people feel valued at MetroHealth will always be on my radar.
On the expansion of MetroHealth beyond W. 25th Street & Institute of H.O.P.E:
Our work is going to follow people’s healthcare needs. The emphasis is that we don’t want to create a health system where we inconvenience people to go outside of their neighborhoods and seek us out for care. Frankly, that’s one of the drivers on why certain individuals are not maintaining the highest level of health care.
Our goal is to connect health care, specifically community-based care, to the communities and go where our patients are located. We’re going to have a huge emphasis on growth and enhancement from that point of view by looking at the core services and the core needs. We are partnering with the community to understand what their needs are and understanding how we can best expand and adapt key programs that really make sense.
On health disparities in Cleveland and MetroHealth’s social responsibility:
One of my core priorities is to center MetroHealth around health equity and eradicating healthcare disparities. It is a significant body of work, but I’m rather confident that we’ll be able to address all of those core challenges.
Some key areas of focus for us are addressing the social determinants of health, or social drivers of health. That includes the wrap-around dynamics that impact a person’s ability to live out healthcare to the fullest. So addressing food insecurity, poverty, transportation barriers, affordable housing and housing insecurity as a whole or accessibility barriers to seeking out respective healthcare needs. All of those factors play a significant role in being able to keep our community well and healthy and out of the hospital.
While we’re in the hospital business, it’s not our core goal to force our patients to use the emergency department as their only means of primary health care.
We’re also looking deeply under the hood at some of the plaguing statistics, including infant mortality, accessibility to health care, chronic disease from a minority perspective and mental health across ZIP codes. I aim to shine a bright light on health equity, eradicating healthcare disparities, and improving the life expectancy of those that we serve.
On her favorite Cleveland neighborhood spots:
I’m still learning and navigating through the East Side, West Side and now South Side neighborhoods. I haven’t found my landing spot yet, but I’m leaning towards the East Side communities.
I’m a huge proponent of investing and giving back to the community. I will be living in Cuyahoga County and investing in the city and county broadly. I’m a huge Italian junkie, so I love Little Italy. I frequently visit there, but I’m falling in love with all the pocket communities. I love the charm of Shaker and Cleveland Heights.