Dr. Steed's Story: Personal Experience Fuels a Commitment to Equity, Health and Innovation
Dr. Airica Steed knows she is expected to fight passionately for equal health care for everyone. She’s the CEO of a public hospital that cares for all people, regardless of the color of their skin, where they live or their ability to pay.
As the first Black woman to hold the post, she also realizes a lot of people are counting on her to be doubly dedicated to making sure all people have access to good care.
But what she wants everyone to know is this: Her drive to make sure every single person has an equal chance at a long healthy life is more personal than that. Deeply personal.
It is a passion born of pain.
Dr. Steed’s mother died at the age of 46, after being misdiagnosed for what turned out to be a rare cancer known as acute myeloid leukemia. Her family was never given information about the risks of the aggressive experimental treatment she received or options that might have added more joy to the last months of her life.
Her grandmothers, both of them, died of breast cancer. Her maternal grandmother was misdiagnosed twice and by the time her cancer was discovered, it had spread to her liver, kidneys, brain and bones.
And just a year ago, her baby sister died at the age of 39 from metastatic breast cancer after she was denied early screenings despite their family history.
Dr. Steed’s own life was at risk with preeclampsia, which affects Black women more often, during two of her pregnancies. Both resulted in premature births and weeks of separation as her babies struggled for survival, a terrifying reminder that Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than others.
“I have been impacted,” Dr. Steed says. “It’s tattooed all over my heart and soul.”
And it changed the course of her life, she says with sadness in her eyes and determination in her voice.
“It motivated me. It encouraged me. It pointed me in the direction of ‘I have to fix the brokenness of the system.’”
It’s one of the many reasons she’s determined to reverse racial disparities nationwide, but especially in Cuyahoga County, with its extremely high death rate for Black babies, and in Cleveland, which is ranked the worst city in the country to live in if you’re a Black woman.
“We have to reverse centuries of inequity, centuries of structural injustice, centuries of poor outcomes, centuries of lack of accessibility, centuries of senseless death,” she says.
She’ll fight harder than you can imagine to make that happen, to make even more history than she’s already making as the first woman CEO, the first Black CEO and the first nurse CEO of the oldest health system in Cleveland, a safety-net that cares for those with little money or no insurance in one of the poorest big cities in America.
“I want to make progress happen,” she says with resoluteness. “I want to do something radically disruptive around this. I want to not just put a dent in it. I really want to eradicate health care disparities. I want equality and equity for everyone.”
It’s just one part of her bold vision for the future of The MetroHealth System, which she’s been heading since December 5, 2022.
And it is why, she says, she has dedicated herself to focusing on the underserved, the voiceless, those who might not have a chance for a full life if not for caregivers like the 8,000 people working at MetroHealth.
It’s also why Dr. Steed will spend her first 100 days as President and CEO on a Listening and Engagement Tour, meeting with people inside the organization and throughout the community.
“I want to bring the community to the table and ask real questions on ‘What are your challenges? What are the barriers that you are up against? What is preventing you from feeling like you are receiving optimal care? What are the barriers and challenges to keeping you healthy, to keeping you out of the hospital?’
“Because that is my personal goal. Even though I am in the hospital business.”
That means she’ll continue to champion the impressive work of the Institute for H.O.P.E.™ just as strongly as she’ll promote MetroHealth’s front-line heroes, who deliver exceptional patient care throughout the health system every day.
She fought hard for them in her previous role as Executive Vice President/System Chief Operating Officer of Sinai Chicago Health System and President of Mount Sinai and Sinai Children’s Hospital.
There, she partnered with a local vendor to provide transportation for patients coming to doctor and other non-emergency appointments. Not only did the percentage of people who missed appointments plunge from 40% to 5%, she says, Sinai Chicago helped the economy by supporting a local business.
Dr. Steed also served as an inaugural member of the South Side Healthy Community Organization and Wellness West in Chicago. The collaboratives brought together health care and other organizations to collectively slash chronic disease, reduce health disparities and increase life expectancy.
It was that work, along with the turnaround of Sinai Chicago that led Crain’s Chicago Business to name her one of its Notable Black Leaders and Executives of 2022 and convinced Modern Healthcare to list her as one of its Top 25 Innovators and a Minority Leader to Watch in 2020.
Becker’s Hospital Review recognized her as well – as one of 75 Black Healthcare Leaders to Know in 2022.
Dr. Steed is proud of the honors but prouder still of being a fourth-generation nurse, following in the compassion-filled footsteps of her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, who worked as nurse midwife in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in the early 1900s.
After completing a Bachelor of Science degree, Dr. Steed went to work as an emergency department and critical care nurse. Front-line nursing, she says, gave her the opportunity to see life from the other side of the hospital gown. It nurtured her empathy. And it inspired her whole-person approach to patient care.
She went on to earn a master’s degree in Business Administration and a Doctor of Education in Ethical Leadership and is enrolled now in the Master of Liberal Arts program at Harvard University Extension School.
A Record of Success
But what prepared her most for leading a $1.7 billion, 8,000-employee organization like MetroHealth, she says, is her years of transforming other organizations.
She worked as a consultant to 120 health care organizations around the world for Pricewaterhouse Coopers in the early 2000s. And she’s been leading large-scale turnarounds ever since.
Her latest was Sinai Chicago.
In less than a year, she improved the hospital system’s grade from the watchdog group Leapfrog from an F to a C+. She boosted cash on hand from -12 days to more than 100 days in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. And she helped launch Ogden Commons, a development that includes retail shops, 350 mixed-income apartments and Sinai’s health and surgery center.
Overcoming struggles at Sinai further strengthened her problem-solving skills, built her resolve and helped prepare her to deal with the controversy that rocked MetroHealth this past year.
“I have dealt with a lot of political issues,” she says, with matter-of-fact confidence. “And I have dealt with a great deal of clinical patient safety-level concerns that were extremely heightened and certainly at the level of crises. I have never been one to run away from a burning building. I've always been one to run towards it – and collectively navigate ourselves out of it.”
Besides, she says, she’s focused on the future. And she has a crystal-clear vision of what that future looks like.
“I do not want the current circumstances to be a distraction from the great work that everyone is doing every single day,” she says. “That great work is going to continue.
“I'm extremely optimistic about our future. And I want people to come with me into that future. Let's focus on that.”
Her agenda and initial vision for MetroHealth focus on four key principles: excellent patient care, innovation, accelerating growth and health equity.
She’ll turn that vision to reality, she says, by leaning heavily on two of her favorite leadership tools: partnering with others and listening.
She’s already spent hours meeting with more than 100 health care, education, government, religious and other leaders from throughout the Cleveland area.
And she’ll continue to listen, especially, she says, to more of her MetroHealth colleagues. It’s why she’s kicking off a Listening and Engagement Tour that will take her throughout the health system and further into the community.
This is how she works, she says, by listening first.
“Because all of us should be involved in making health care the absolute best it can be for ourselves, our families and those we care for,” she says.
And all of us, she says, should do more than provide health care. Our goal should be treating the whole person, helping lift people out of poverty, improving their overall lives, providing them with the brightest future possible.
That, Dr. Steed says, is the legacy she wants to leave behind.
Born of pain or not, she wants to be remembered “for having such passion and such conviction for MetroHealth that we truly made a difference. And that difference could be proven.”
Her voice gets stronger again as she makes her next point. She doesn’t need the spotlight, she wants it shining on the people working on the front lines, doing the demanding work of caring for patients and supporting those who provide that care.
“I really want to elevate excellence from within the organization,” she says. “That’s truly what I want to be known for – bringing out the best in people so their value can be seen and can be heard.
“I want to be known for giving the voiceless a voice. I want to be known for positioning people and adding a seat at the table. I want to be known for delivering health care for everyone regardless of their ability to pay. I want to be known for shattering health care disparities.
“At the end of the day that’s what it’s all about.”
Get to Know Dr. Steed
Education: Bachelor of Science degree from Rush University in Chicago; Master’s of Business Administration from Governors State University in University Park, Illinois; Doctorate of Education in Ethical Leadership from Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Illinois; now enrolled in the Master of Liberal Arts, Global Development Practice, program at Harvard University Extension School.
Family: The second of four children, she and her husband, Charles, who works in finance, have four children, Eryk, 21; Charlize, 16; Caleb, 14; and Rylie, 7; and two dogs, Ash and Penny.
Teaching experience: From 2010 to the present, Dr. Steed has taught nursing, healthcare management, business management, quality and ethics at Loyola University in Chicago, Walden University in Minneapolis, the University of Illinois in Chicago, the Ohio University Heritage College of Medicine in Athens, Ohio, and Governors State University in Illinois.
Leadership advice: “… be comfortable learning how to be uncomfortable. And practice the art of proper failure, failure with confidence where you can build yourself back up…. Leadership is not about perfection. It’s about learning and it’s about evolving, about becoming a better person every single day.”