Intermountain Healthcare is a Salt Lake City-based nonprofit healthcare system, providing hospital and other medical services in Utah and Idaho and offering integrated managed care under the insurance brand SelectHealth.
Charles W. Sorenson, MD, FACS, has been an influential reason for its success, having served as president and CEO of Intermountain from January 2009 until his retirement from this position in October 2016, when he became founding director of the Intermountain Healthcare Leadership Institute.
“My best trait is the ability to hang out with people who are far more capable than I am,” Sorenson quips. “I am not intimidated by working with people who are smarter than I am.”
Under his leadership, Intermountain implemented a disciplined and systemwide focus on best clinical and operational practices aimed at producing measurably better outcomes for patients while controlling costs: “I’ve always been focused on best care for our patients.”
Sorenson also sees the culture at Intermountain as having a ripple effect. “We had nearly 40,000 people working there who spent more time at work than with their families,” he notes. “Whatever culture they had at work, they would surely import to their children and families. “
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Prior to his time in the top job, Sorenson was Intermountain’s executive vice president and chief operating officer for 11 years. He was instrumental in making clinical process improvements and developing Intermountain into an integrated delivery system.
“This is a great career for making a difference for multiple people every day,” Sorenson says. “At the same time, it’s a career you continue to learn from and improve your skills. I’d do it all over again in an instant.”
Making his mark
Becoming a physician was something that was always in the cards for Sorenson. His father was a dedicated internist in Salt Lake City. Sorenson says he didn’t see much of his father growing up because of the long hours his father put in, he knew his dad loved his patients and never once heard him complain. Sorenson’s mother was a nurse and was equally dedicated.
“I was a pretty good student, and I wanted to go to medical school because it was the hardest thing I could think of doing,” he says. “I always felt like doing hard things was good for me, and I always felt like this is what I always wanted to do.” He dreamed of going to medical school on the East Coast. An acceptance letter from Cornell turned that dream into a reality. He quickly rose to the top of his class.
Sorenson ended up liking surgery and enjoyed his residency: “Even though it was long hours, I never felt burdened by that.” He specialized in urologic surgery, returned to Salt Lake City in the early ’80s, and practiced at Intermountain’s largest hospital, and was on the teaching staff at the University of Utah. “I thought life was good,” says Sorenson.
In the early ’90s, Sorenson noticed a worrisome trend in healthcare: Physicians buying their own surgical centers, urologists buying their own lithotripters, and a general trend of physicians taking control of services that make money for hospitals out of the hospitals.
“In fee-for-service medicine, you get paid really well for some procedural things and you don’t get paid at all for taking care of patients with long-term medical illnesses, behavioral health issues, and managing people on Medicaid,” says Sorenson. “I felt like things were fragmenting.” Sorenson says he talked to some of the leaders at Intermountain about starting an integrated medical group. In 1994, Sorenson was one of the founding members of the Intermountain Medical Group, an integrated practice of approximately 1,500 physicians and advanced practice clinicians employed by Intermountain, serving as the founding chair of the Medical Group Board from 1994 to 1998.
“I was continuing in my clinical practice and also on the Intermountain board at the time, and they asked me a couple of times if I wanted an administrative responsibility instead of clinical work, but I didn’t really want that then,” explains Sorenson. “In late 1997, things were changing, and they asked me if I would be willing to go full-time in leadership role, and after thinking about it a long time, I felt it was important and did it.”