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One year at the helm, Dr. Art Kellermann reflects on what the year has meant to him

Dr. Art Kellermann Dr. Art Kellermann, senior vice president for health sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University and CEO for VCU Health System (Photo: Allen Jones, University Marketing)

On his one-year anniversary, Dr. Art Kellermann, senior vice president for health sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University and CEO for VCU Health System, shares his sources of pride and hopes for the future. 

What are you most proud of in your first year?

I could not be more proud of the resilience of our team members as we battled the worst pandemic the world has faced in 100 years — all while maintaining high quality, expert care for every single patient.

I saw first-hand that care and compassion are at the heart of our health system. The COVID-19 pandemic proved that when the going gets tough, we are stronger together. We rally around each other, our patients and the community.

During this time we vaccinated tens of thousands of employees, vulnerable patients and community members. And while doing all of that, we gave expert care to more than 39,000 complex inpatients, evaluated and managed more than 100,000 ER visits, and managed nearly a million outpatient and telehealth encounters between our Richmond and South Hill hospitals and clinics.*

As the pandemic raged, we recognized an immediate need to reach out to our Latinx patients and their communities with objective information about COVID-19. Partnering with more than 10 other community organizations, we formed the Latinx Education Outreach Working Group to produce accurate, timely and culturally appropriate materials in Spanish and share these resources with our Latino neighbors.

Not only has the pandemic had a catastrophic effect on our nation’s health, it has given rise to a very uncertain economic climate. In Virginia alone, more than 30,000 health care workers were laid off near the onset of the pandemic.

I am especially proud of the fact that despite all that, we did not have any layoffs or furloughs. In fact, we  boosted our minimum wage from $12 to $15 an hour for our frontline team members — including those who work alongside our clinical teams to provide food and nutritional services, environmental services, valet and other services that mean so much to our patients and VCU Health operations.

Together with merit increases and bonuses, we have committed $38 million in new funds to our team members this year alone, and we’re committed to doing more in the coming year.

What are you most looking forward to as you begin your second year?

My biggest hope for 2022 is that our nation and the Commonwealth will see COVID-19 recede for good. That will only happen if all us make smart choices to fight the virus. We may be tired of it, but it isn’t tired of us.

Beyond that, 2022 will be a pivotal year for VCU Health because we start bringing major investments online that will dramatically improve our patients’ experience with care.

This December we’re inaugurating our new Adult Outpatient Pavilion downtown and our first independently-owned ambulatory surgery center, located in Short Pump.  The same month, we “go-live” with Epic, our new electronic health record. In addition to many other features that will help our doctors, nurses and support personnel do their jobs, Epic will make it much easier for patients and referring doctors to communicate and interact with us. We are excited by what both of these developments will mean for our patients and our health system. 

These developments come on top of this year’s partnership with Sheltering Arms Institute to open their amazingly advanced rehabilitation hospital in Goochland, opening our first freestanding ER in New Kent and extending VCU quality care to the Northern Neck by welcoming Tappahannock Hospital into our VCUHS family.

And in early Spring 2023, we’ll be opening the Children’s Hospital of Richmond (CHoR) Wonder Tower.  When it comes online, we will have one full city block of services dedicated to sick and injured children, their parents and their siblings. This is extraordinary!

Looking forward, our goal is to serve not just more Virginians, but all Virginians. We are redefining what it means to be both a provider of lifesaving specialty care and concurrently, a safety net hospital. We want to make VCU Health a key partner with the Virginia Department of Health in promoting, protecting and (when need be) restoring health of all Virginians.

One example of this  commitment is the VCU Health Hub at 25th. Supported by VCU, the Health Hub connects underserved residents in Richmond’s East End with community providers for care coordination and support —whether it's behavioral health, disease management or even COVID-19 vaccinations.

Looking farther ahead, we expect to offer our expertise to more and more people as they travel to VCU Health from across the country, even the world, to seek our services. Among these globally-sought services are our solid organ transplant, cellular Immunotherapies and bone marrow transplant, cardiac mechanical assist devices and specialty services for certain pediatric diseases and disorders — to highlight just a few.

We have a multi-faceted plan to do all this. Not only are we increasing capacity, but we are infusing innovation in everything we do — whether it’s patient care, research or health professions education. We are also committed to diversity, equity and inclusion in everything we do.  At VCU, we reject the old adage “No money, no mission.” For us, mission — and the dedicated team that advances it every day — always comes first. 

You touched on health equity. This is a stated objective in the health system’s strategic plan. Can you tell us more about this?

We’re seeing tremendous momentum in the health equity space. Last year the health system hired its inaugural director of diversity, equity and inclusion, Dr. Marcelle Davis. Dr. Davis just celebrated her first-year anniversary with us, and she’s setting in motion a panoply of goals and achievements. It all starts with changing attitudes and perceptions, and Dr. Davis has already helped us come a long way in that area in just one year.

In addition, we launched the Office of Health Equity, under the leadership of Sheryl Garland. This new office will build upon the accomplishments, relationships and knowledge gained from the VCU Health Equity Initiative, whose goals are to design and implement models for infusing health equity principles into the education and training, research and patient care missions of VCU and VCU Health System. 

I’d also like to take this time to single out VCU Massey Cancer Center for its efforts in advancing health equity. Most recently, Massey earned a highly competitive SPORE grant to address the disproportionate effects of lung cancer on the Black community.

Massey Cancer Center has at its helm Dr. Robert Winn. As director of Massey Cancer Center, Dr. Winn has taken it upon himself to inform the Black community of the truths and reality of COVID-19 and other areas of health inequities. In his “Facts & Faith Fridays,” for instance, Dr. Winn meets with area pastors to dispel rumors, answer questions and provide updates and advice on COVID-19. These discourses are then shared among congregations.

These conversations have done more to bridge the gap between the medical establishment and neighboring Black communities in terms of education, trust and action than anyone could have ever foreseen. We see this as an important means of reducing, and ultimately eliminating, gaps in care and outcomes.

By expanding our work in the community, particularly in local neighborhoods and communities statewide that have long suffered from disparities in health, we can redefine what it means to be a “safety net” institution. For all the attention paid to precision health, an American’s chances of living a long and healthy life still depend more on their zip code than their genetic code. By expanding our focus from treatment to prevention by addressing the major causes of illness and mortality, we can point American health care toward a more just, equitable and inclusive future.

What keeps you up at night?

While we carry out our work, we must continue our fight against COVID-19. As long as millions of Americans remain unvaccinated, it will continue to harm us all and be a constant drag on our economy.

Fortunately, with each passing day, we have more weapons to fight back. If we stick together and make wise choices, we will prevail. 

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*These numbers include VCU Medical Center and VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital. VCU Health Tappahannock Hospital was acquired in January 2020.

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