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Profile: Dr. Kenneth L. Davis

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-02-14

As Dr. Kenneth L. Davis -- president and CEO of Mount Sinai Medical Center, and dean of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine -- walked toward the lunch table yesterday, the energy and intensity he exuded seemed quite palpable to a reporter. He looked, well, like a leader.

"Leader?" Dr. Davis said. "When I was a pimply kid, prematurely balding, out on Long Island, and someone had said to me that in 40 years I'd be the chief executive officer of one of America's biggest medical and research facilities, I'd have said, 'I don't think so.' But I found that I had the ability to conceptualize a problem very quickly, identify its elements, and ask the right questions. I realized that I had the skills to organize and manage people, that I was a good facilitator of other people's careers. I suppose you could call those leadership requirements. Is there a grand master plan to our lives? Well, if there is, then it might explain everything that's happened to me since my Long Island days."

Wiry, of medium height, self-assured, and obviously a man who keeps fit -- his game is golf -- Dr. Davis seemed to the reporter to be just the sort that central casting would send if one were making a movie -- on location in Manhattan, of course -- about a world-famous hospital that was struggling with budgetary constraints, battling a greedy HMO industry, trying to satisfy a civic constituency with enormous expectations about affordable health-care, and attempting to retain its traditional edge in research and medical innovation.

In the movie, such a hospital would need a tough, no-nonsense leader whose probity and technical reputation were beyond dispute. It would need a man who could be at his office not long after dawn and leave it not before dusk. It would need a skilled fundraiser who must bring in $2 billion annually just to keep the 1,171-bed facility going. It would need a savvy administrator who was capable of handling the monumental egos and fragile sensitivities of 2,273 staff physicians, 792 residents and fellows, and 2,063 nurses from dozens of countries.

The movie would need a smart scientist, one who'd gained an international reputation when he first suggested that cholinomimetic therapy could be useful for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease, which eventually led to the approval of the first symptomatic treatment -- including a whole class of cholinesterase inhibitors and anti-inflammatory compounds -- to slow the course of the disease.

And the movie would need a leader capable of handling the notoriously temperamental 3,625-member faculty of the hospital's medical school.

Central casting would certainly send someone like Kenneth Davis for such a movie. In real life, Mount Sinai -- which began serving Jewish indigents in 1852 -- has Kenneth Davis of Syosset, Long Island, a prize-winning student and athlete who aced his way through Yale College, graduating magna cum laude, then was the valedictorian of his class at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, after which he won a fellowship in psychiatry, and psychopharmacology at Stanford University Medical Center, and thereafter won a career development award from the Veterans Administration to pursue his research in cholinergic mechanisms and neuropsychiatric diseases. In 1979, Dr. Davis joined the faculty at Mount Sinai, becoming chief of psychiatry at the Bronx Veterans Administration (VA) Medical Center. He led Mount Sinai's research program in the biology of schizophrenia and was the first director of the Schizophrenia Biological Research Center at the Bronx VA Hospital. And in 1987, he was appointed chairman of psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. He was 39 years old.

Then in January 2003 he was appointed dean of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine; in March 2003 he assumed the additional position of president and CEO of the Mount Sinai Medical Center.

That's some resume.

The reporter asked Dr. Davis to look past his resume, to the time, some years down the road, when his portrait would hang in Mount Sinai's board room along with those of other heads from the institution's fabled history. What would he want his tenure to be remembered as?

This was how Dr. Davis responded: "That I was CEO at a difficult time in Mount Sinai's history, that Peter May and I came together to guarantee Mount Sinai's future for at least another generation, that we put this great institution on a trajectory of growth, that we articulated a strong vision and a compelling story for philanthropists for whose money we had to compete energetically, that we provided the highest quality of health care for a community that represented the diversity of America, that we soundly trained the next generation of physicians, that Mount Sinai retained and renewed its place as a superlative institution for research in the medical sciences."

There are no ambiguities in a conversation with Dr. Davis. His parsing is straight-forward. He speaks in concise, complete sentences. One could picture him in Mount Sinai's board with its 65 trustees -- which includes New York luminaries such as board chairman May, former U.S. Treasury secretary Robert E. Rubin, and financiers Henry Kravis and Carl Icahn -- outlining his plans for establishing financial security for the medical center.

So how would he characterize his style of management?

"I give loyalty, and I demand loyalty," Dr. Davis said. "Anything less than full dedication to our institution -- to our values of community service and medical excellence -- would mean failure. I am not a person who accepts failure. My colleagues know that if I take a project on, and they don't share my values, then none of us will survive."

Perhaps that explains why, soon after becoming CEO nearly two years ago, Dr. Davis overhauled Mount Sinai's entire management team.

At one of his first staff meetings, Dr. Davis said: "If someone in my family gets sick, then I want him or her to come to Mount Sinai. That should be the test for all of us. So either you perform well here, or you don't work here."

These are strong words, but they are said evenly. It's only when he's asked about the general state of the health industry in the state -- and indeed all across America -- that his voice rises.

"Health care is increasingly becoming an insoluble question, particularly for Mount Sinai," Dr. Davis said. "Our expenses have grown three times the size of our budget. But we can't pass on those costs to our patients, to those who trust us to deliver affordable health-care. But the insurance companies and the HMOs have no such compunction. So we have to develop creative approaches to deal with a very hostile environment."

One approach would be simply to turn to Mount Sinai's traditional Jewish donors and raise more money. But those donors are also importuned increasingly by other medical facilities in the city.

There are also the mounting uncertainties over the volume of reimbursements from Medicare and Medicaid. And Dr. Davis is concerned over what he calls the "irresponsible superimposition of free market economics on the health-care system."
"That's just plain nonsense," he said. "The consumer cannot be asked to shop around for health care when there's an emergency. This isn't a bazaar."

"A hospital is a living and breathing entity," Dr. Davis said. "Whatever the funding situation, we simply cannot compromise on the level and extent of medical care that we need to offer. Unless people who make public policy truly understand the enormity of the health-care crisis, the very existence of the greatest institution in New York, indeed even the country, is threatened. I'm not going to let that happen on my watch."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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