April 04, 2016
Area(s) of Interest: Quality of Care Patient Care
Gustavo Friederichsen, the new CEO of the Los Angeles County Medical Association (LACMA), is a smart man with an ambitious plan for his first 100 days at the helm of the association. Though membership has been languishing for many years, Friederichsen has a vision of a dynamic medical association that will play an integral role in the lives of Los Angeles County physicians.
“What I plan to do is create the right infrastructure for growth for LACMA,” Friederichsen said. “I have a plan to improve the membership experience, create value and attractiveness for members and prospective members.” The plan includes engaging ethnic physician organizations that are prolific in the area; developing relevant collaborations with specialty societies; catering to the largely ignored solo practitioners; and leveraging the vast resources of the California Medical Association.
"Los Angeles County has 25 percent of the physicians in the whole state, and yet is currently ranked in fourth position in county membership numbers for 2016 because there was no growth in 2015," said Friederichsen, a marketing and brand management expert who has held top senior management positions at major health organizations including Palomar Health and Sharp HealthCare. He wants to leverage his skill sets and experience to grow LACMA into the go-to umbrella organization for all physicians in the county.
But taking an organization like LACMA from zero to grow in the first 100 days takes much more than a plan; it takes an individual with a wellspring of passion and a vision to communicate what the organization could – and must – be.
What is not included in Friederichsen's resume is where that passion comes from. And when you get a glimpse of the source, it's easy to see why he has a chance to make so much happen in 100 days.
The story to his life-long calling begins at an early age living in Tijuana, Mexico. “My brother Gabriel suffered from severe asthma,” he said. His parents were told that they would have to move to the United States to get the treatment he needed. Because his father worked in the Mexican consulate on the border, he was able to arrange a move to San Diego and eventually the family became naturalized American citizens.
“My parents would not have decided to move to the United States if it were not for my brother’s illness and the necessity of getting the right health care,” he notes. They were not prepared for the culture shock and language barriers of moving to a foreign country. “They had some abilities to adapt. My dad was street smart, affable; my mom got a job at a local high school, a job she had for 30 years. Being young, I learned immediately how to navigate the language and the culture, and before long I was playing sports and assimilating academically and socially.”
He points out that this experience gives him commonalities with many of the immigrant physicians in Los Angeles County. “Many physicians had to make the same decisions to come to this country. Their families lived through the same experiences. Their patients, also, will be familiar to my own experiences.” He feels that he can put programs into place that will enhance benefits and resources for these physicians and their patients. “I come to the table prepared to engage in a dialog to develop solutions,” for members with this experience.
Another motivating life experience for Friederichsen took place in his 20s, when he was at the U.S. Treasury Department as press secretary and feeling restless that he was not doing purposeful work. “I found out that there was a position available at the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) as a deputy director of communications. I went to the White House personnel office and said, ‘I wanted the job.'”
He got the job and found himself working with Luis M. Sullivan, M.D., the secretary of HHS under the George H. W. Bush administration. Dr. Sullivan was an inspiring mentor, board certified in internal medicine and hematology, who during his almost four years at HHS battled the tobacco industry and served as a champion and advocate of AIDS sufferers and their caregivers.
What happened in his first week at HHS galvanized Friederichsen’s vision. “In the first week, the AIDS activist organization, ACTUP, stormed the building, blowing whistles and carried out a die-in in front of Dr. Sullivan’s office door,” Friederichsen said. The protest turned into an occupation of the offices and corridors. “I was in the thick of the controversy and witnessed his security detail get [Dr. Sullivan] out of the building.” Protesters also occupied the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institutes of Health on the same day.
The protesters had legitimate claims, as thousands of people were dying of AIDS and the FDA was taking 10 years to pass new drug treatments. Many HIV treatments to slow the progress of the disease were already in use in Europe, but Americans who were suffering had no access to these drugs because of the slowness of the approval process. In addition, the previous Reagan administration had completely ignored the disease, leading to a feeling of desperation.
AZT (Zidovudine), an antiretroviral, was the only drug on the market, at a steep cost of $10,000 a year. The protesters wanted new treatments faster and they wanted the federal government to disseminate drugs equitably.
The protesters’ message – that “the government has blood on its hands” – struck a deep cord in Friederichsen’s heart. Almost 200 people were arrested in the daylong protest, but within two months, the agency had changed regulations to allow for an accelerated drug evaluation process. This resulted in a new regimen of drugs used to treat HIV.
“Those protests changed my life,” Friederichsen said. He found himself so exhilarated by his position and what the HHS could do that he felt he had found his calling. “The country was grappling with its response to HIV and I was able to shape the dialog.”
Both of these life experiences animate his plans for LACMA. “Exposure to these experiences shaped my life and my career,” he explains. “These two experiences helped me to be successful in health care in Southern California and I believe they will help me rebuild LACMA into an organization that reaches beyond just individuals and enhances the health of the county’s population.”