Featured Exec: Charles W. Sorenson, President and CEO Emeritus of Intermountain Healthcare

March 3, 2020

A look at the president and CEO's experience in becoming an influential reason for Intermountain Healthcare's success.

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. “

Related: Featured Exec: Shelbourn Stevens

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.”

He admits he wasn’t excited about leaving clinical practice but hoped to spend a morning every week in the operating room helping colleagues on major surgical procedures to stay involved. 

“I learned on the job. They didn’t want me to get an MBA. They needed someone who understood the clinical processes and could relate to frontline clinicians-physicians and nurses-and focus on providing healthcare affordably and achieving Intermountain’s mission.”

Jumping into the CEO and president positions wasn’t something that Sorenson was planning on doing, but when he was asked, he accepted and stayed in that role until he passed age 65. Then, Sorenson pursued something he was really passionate about-developing leaders at the intersection of clinical and operational expertise at the Institute for Healthcare Leadership. In addition to his administrative responsibilities, Sorenson has also continued to be involved in the practice of urologic surgery, with a primary focus on urologic oncology. The institute got off the ground because of a “very generous” gift of $20 million from Kem Gardner, a Utah real estate developer, Sorenson says. It is focused on values-based leadership principles to help healthcare leaders more fully develop the combination of character and competence that inspires trust, which Sorenson notes is at the core of great leadership. 

“I thought it was important to train people to combine clinical expertise and knowledge with operational expertise,” Sorenson says. “There were a number of great leadership programs around, but most of them focus on business skills. Those are important, but I’d come to recognize that we needed those who also had a value-spaced leadership, who were focused on integrity, courage, had emotional intelligence, and people skills.” The target audience is mid-career, high-potential clinical and operational leaders from respected nonprofit systems. The institute has a unique center where participants practice leadership scenarios using simulation and case studies.

“Our faculty has really felt the engagement of our participants in this very interactive program. It’s very motivating to see how well it’s been received,” Sorenson says. “It’s been great and the cohorts have really gelled. These are the kind of leaders it will take to change healthcare around the world.”

Family matters

Sorenson and his wife, Sharee, reside in Salt Lake City and are the parents of four adult children.

“I’m at the age when I kind of reflect back on life and I’ve spent a lot of hours in the hospital and a lot of hours at work,” he says. “I’m trying to spend more time with my kids and grandchildren.” His two oldest children have followed his example and came back to Utah. Eric is a surgical oncologist at Intermountain and Scott went the business route. His daughter is a nurse in Minneapolis,  and his youngest son is a mechanical engineer in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Sorenson and his wife spend time volunteering together and work with refugee families from Central Africa. “It’s been really fulfilling for us to spend some time doing that,” he says. “These are some wonderful people.”

He also recently joined MEDI, the largest executive coaching firm in the nation dedicated exclusively to the healthcare industry as an executive coach. “When I was still in the CEO job, before starting the Institute, I realized I needed to understand what coaching is,” Sorenson says. “I ended up going to Columbia’s program in 2017, and I like it in the same way I like medicine. A new client is like a new patient. You enter a relationship where you don’t know this person at all but to be successful you have to develop a high level of mutual trust and the goal is to help them.”

Reflecting on his life, Sorenson considers himself very lucky He mentions having opportunities to learn from amazing people in college and every step of the way at Intermountain. 

“I feel a big responsibility at this time in my life to give back, and if I can help people whether it’s through the Leadership Institute or doing volunteer work, that’s important to me,” he says.   

Keith Loria is an award-winning journalist who has been writing for major newspapers and magazines for close to 20 years.   

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