By Chris Kenji Beer
Northwest Asian Weekly
When asked about Swedish Hospital’s role in the community, the “King” of Swedish Health Services, Anthony Armada, paraphrased the “Lion King” that the health care provider “serves your community as far as the eye can see.” As CEO of the leading hospital and health services organization in the Pacific Northwest, reaching as far as Alaska and Montana, Armada said, “I take this privilege very seriously.” This perspective may have led Armada to take a different career path from his father and brothers.
A son of Filipino immigrants, Armada’s father was a practicing physician in the Philippines. From early childhood, the natural course of family professional life was to become a doctor.
After moving to the United States, Armada’s father needed to go through his residency in psychiatry, so that he could practice here. As a pharmacist in the Philippines, his mother was able to work immediately upon arriving here and supported the family as caregiver and primary income earner. She supported her husband through medical school as well.
Armada said he didn’t realize how much his parents shaped and sacrificed for him at the time. “My parents taught me humility and that you had to work extra hard as a person of color.” Armada spoke of an experience from his childhood that taught him humility and a few other lessons. When the young Anthony returned from having dinner at a friend’s house one day, he recalled saying, “Mom, I can’t believe we don’t have dessert (like other families in America).” At the time, six Armada kids were living with their parents in a small apartment for student housing. It was an important lesson for the young Anthony and something he carries with him as inspiration to this day. “My mom, instead of playing victim, created a solution.” She said, “We have dessert,” and she was able to afford a can of fruit cocktail, offering one tablespoon of fruit for each of her children. A few lessons Armada said he learned from this experience is “you learn how to manage expectations. You have a choice about the next step.”
Overcoming parental objections
Armada is the youngest of four boys, two of whom are doctors. So when Armada set out to complete his undergraduate degree as a medical technical aid, it may not have impressed his parents much. Furthermore, when Armada chose to pursue a Master’s in Health Administration at Xavier University, “then, one of the top three programs in the country,” said Armada, his parents were surprised and disappointed. “I chose this path over a late acceptance into Michigan State University’s medical school to study osteopathic medicine.” “It was a defining moment in my life,“ said Armada. His parents asked, “Why not be a doctor?” He told them that he believed he would have more success being a servant-leader. “My dad didn’t talk to me for three years,” said Armada. Armada understands that while a bit harsh and misdirected, his parents responded this way out of concern for his welfare. Armada understood that “my parents didn’t understand health administration.” “I knew at the age of 25, I made the right choice of what would make me happy,” added Armada.
Borrowing the words coined by University of Washington psychologist and top selling author Daniel Goleman, it was an “emotionally intelligent” decision at such a young age. Perhaps, this might be the most important trait a leader must possess.
We can pinpoint skills at strategy, organization, business development, but only one trait is indispensable to a person’s rise to the top. Emotional intelligence involves a deep self-awareness. In fact, Armada outlined three key traits to leadership and it’s no accident emotional intelligence was at the top of his list. The second trait is that one has to be able to “work in a matrix of complex relationships.” Third, one must “invest time in the self to continually learn and improve.”
Turning the corner
In 1995, Armada received his first CEO job as head of Chino Valley Medical Center in Chino, Calif. It was only then that Armada’s parents came to understand his decision to study health administration at Xavier. His parents read about his appointment as CEO in the local newspaper. Even then, it took some explaining for them to realize what this meant. It was here early in Armada’s career when he learned some of his hardest and most challenging lessons. Two years into his career, a group of doctors asked for expensive medical equipment at a six figure expense. “Everything in health care is run by doctors,” said Armada. The intention was to serve the largest segment of that market by way of “first-mover” advantage (be the first to provide that service in the region). Initially, this purchase proved profitable until a competitor hospital went out and purchased the same equipment. What would Armada have done differently today if he knew now what he didn’t know then? “I would have known better if that happened.”
However, Chino Valley was merely a stepping stone to greater responsibilities. His next position moved him south to run three Northridge Kaiser Permanente hospitals (Los Angeles area). Four years later, a friend of Armada’s father called in to ask, perhaps beg, him to return home to Michigan and save the ailing local hospital of his home state, Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital.
At the time, the 900-bed hospital had lost $39-40 million to date. In LeBron James fashion, Armada accepted the offer to help turn around the ailing hospital. The local Detroit Free Press said Armada was “coming home to make a difference.” After five years at Henry Ford Hospital, Armada spent four years as president in the Chicago area at the Advocate Lutheran General Hospital and Lutheran General Children’s Hospital. He and his family returned to the west for Armada to become CEO of Swedish Health Services and Chief Executive of Providence Health Services – Western Washington. Swedish is the largest nonprofit health provider in the Greater Seattle area with 11,000 employees and over 2,800 physicians. At a recent meeting of health care executives, an associate of Armada said “you are one of the top 10 Asian health care executives in the country.”
Armada responded “yes, if there are fewer than 10 in the country, then it doesn’t take much to be one of the top (Asian) executives.”
Partly to avoid mistakes of his early days and to avoid pitfalls that still occur today in the health care industry, Armada mitigates risk taking by “being an early adopter of technology and health care innovation” that has, at minimum, a proven, measurable model or test market. Armada has adopted this approach “instead of being an early adopter with no proven experience,” he said.
That said, Swedish remains a leader in innovation, asserted Armada. “On the clinical side, for example, Swedish is the first to apply truly ‘personalized medicine’ using genotyping. Genotyping is a fingerprint of who you are genetically,” he said. “For example, there can be five potential cures for a particular cancer. Genotyping can test and determine which of the five offers the best results, the least risk, and the best course of action for that particular patient.” With help from Dr. Leroy Hood, the founding father of genomics as a resident at Swedish (estimated by most to become a Nobel Prize winner), the hospital is leading the country in the medical and scientific applications of genomics.
Providence has dedicated $150 million in venture capital to improve and streamline health services. Other related programs include the creation of an innovation center for health care. One of their joint projects is called “Health Express,” a mobile phone app which provides real-time remote scheduling, remote face-to-face consultations with doctors, and other services, such as prescription approvals. Walgreens is working as a third party with opening local clinics, hosting three on-site Swedish clinics within its stores, and plans in place to roll out 10 clinics by 2017. A Providence-led community program deployed 10,000 devices in the Everett area, which Armada referred to as a “fitbits for kids.” This application “tracks the steps kids take every day, and makes it fun, challenging, and competitive with their friends.” The goal, he said, is to motivate adolescents to be less sedentary, more healthy and active, which will reduce diabetes, and encourage weight loss.
What advice does Armada have for young aspiring Asian Americans considering a career in health care? Armada responded, “Find yourself an unblemished mentor. Talk to people who have been there.” Additionally, no matter what you do, he said to apply the 100 percent rule: have a 100 percent positive attitude, do your 100 percent best, have a 100 percent respectful attitude, and maintain 100 percent integrity.
The Swedish “Five Best” practices seems to emanate from its leader to all staff. Swedish enjoys a reputation as the top hospital in the region by providing the best safety and quality, the best health outcome, the best experience, being the best place to work and practice, and the best use of (finite) resources.
Anthony Armada will be an honoree at the Northwest Asian Weekly’s Technology and Innovation Awards. The event is Oct. 7 at China Harbor Restaurant from 6–9 p.m. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Online tickets at http://visionary.bpt.me.
*This story was edited on Aug. 8 to correct facts.
Chris can be reached at email@example.com.