About fifteen years ago, we were discussing as Kaiser Permanente’s (KP’s) senior leadership team whether or not we should spend four billion dollars to create an automated medical record that would be connected electronically to every aspect of care—including the imaging data, pharmacy operations, and patient scheduling systems. While some of the members of the senior team were questioning whether we would get a sufficient financial and functional result from that massive and possibly risky investment, Bernard Tyson said (as I recall it): “This is just like the internet five years ago. That computerized information will let us do things well that we don’t even think about doing today. Yes. We have the money, and it would be very wrong for us not to spend the money to automate everything and build that EMR [electronic medical record].”
An Advocate For The Electronic Medical Record
We built that EMR, and Bernard Tyson became President, CEO, and Chair of Kaiser Permanente. The EMR he championed and then helped roll out provided far better support tools for both caregivers and patients than the systems in place before – ultimately helping KP achieve top quality scores in Medicare.
Bernard was absolutely right in saying that having that information about patients electronically available would allow that care system to do things that we did not even conceptualize at the time. Having all of the data on the computer for each patient has even allowed patient visits to happen electronically. If you heard a Bernard Tyson speech or presentation in the past two years, there is a high likelihood you heard him celebrate and enjoy the fact that more than sixty percent of Kaiser Permanente patient visits are now electronic. He loved sharing that information because it told the rest of the world what is possible.
Bernard spent his entire career at KP. He knew that organization inside out, and he both loved and improved it.
A Team Builder
Kaiser Permanente has a long-running communications and brand campaign called Thrive that has been a well-publicized model for the country for both health care and health plan positioning and communications. What most people do not know is that Bernard actually ran the branding efforts of Kaiser Permanente at that point in his career, and that he and his team developed the Thrive campaign. He loved teams and working with great people. The Thrive Campaign was a proof point for how effective that approach can be and how well he did it.
Bernard spent four years as the chief operating officer for KP before going into the CEO job. The entire fabric of system rollouts that make Kaiser Permanente so highly functioning today happened on his watch.
A Social Justice Advocate
Bernard Tyson was more than just a capable business and health care executive. He had a strong sense of social equity and social justice. He wrote a thought piece about being an African American man in the U.S. and the fear and discrimination he faced, even as the CEO of a fifty billion dollar company. That piece had millions of readers and helped some people understand some important issues.
Bernard believed in social justice. His commitment to the city of Oakland, where KP is headquartered, was almost legendary. Just last year, that commitment included setting up approaches to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to improve housing for low-income people as part of KP’s stewardship for the city and the community.
His father was a minister, and also a dock worker and a union member for part of his life. Bernard used to talk about his father’s intense pride in having that union card in his wallet because it certified him as a worker entitled to the dignity that comes with being a union member. Bernard told that story about his father’s union card once at a large union meeting, and the head of that union came up to me afterwards and said he would never again follow Bernard at the microphone and would insist on speaking first in the future because Bernard was too hard an act to follow.
The funeral for Bernard’s father was one of the most impressive ceremonies of that kind I have ever seen. Four bishops in that church spoke, and they gave four of the best talks I have ever heard. Bernard was the final speaker. His description of his father’s life and the values that had guided him had everyone in tears. Including me.
That apple did not fall very far from that tree. But it fell way too soon.
American health care just lost a great leader. His sons have lost a devoted, extremely proud, and committed father. His wife lost a loving, supportive, and appreciative husband.
A Continuing Role Model
We need to make sure that people understand what Bernard did and who he was, because we need role models for our country and our people at this point in our history. Bernard provided that role model with joy, grace, integrity, and skill, and with core levels of truth, commitment, and positive energy every day.
I miss Bernard. I loved being his friend. I appreciate being able to share this piece, in deep grief for his loss.
We lost him way too soon.