Dr. David T. Feinberg with his emergency room staff at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.

Dr. David T. Feinberg with his emergency room staff at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. Photo by Ringo Chiu.

UCLA Medical Center long had a reputation for being an institution where bedside manners took second place to world-class medical care – and where celebrity medical records had a hard time staying private. At least that was until Dr. David T. Feinberg, a clinical professor of psychiatry, was named hospital chief executive on an interim basis in 2007. Feinberg took over during a difficult period, less than a year before the opening of the hospital’s $1 billion building, which suffered from cost overruns and construction delays. Still, Feinberg found time to talk to patients and employees about their experiences, prompting him to encourage his staff to create a more healing atmosphere for patients. Feinberg was such a success that Joseph Mitchell, the author of “The Starbucks Experience,” a best-selling tribute to top-notch customer service, decided to write about the hospital for his next book: “Prescription for Excellence,” which studied how the UCLA Medical Center became a leader in patient satisfaction. Feinberg also was made permanent chief executive of the hospital and the entire UCLA Health System, which treats some 1.5 million patients a year at multiple sites, including a second hospital in Santa Monica. The Business Journal sat down recently with Feinberg to discuss how he created change in such a large bureaucracy while managing to find time for his family and a workout that can stretch two hours.

Question: Were you surprised when you were asked to run the entire medical center?

Answer: It really was a matter of luck and timing. The head of the medical center left to take another job and we were about to move into the new hospital in a year. The dean asked me to take over on an interim basis, because they didn’t want to do a national search in the middle of a move.

Did you have any training for it?

I’m kind of a nerd. I like learning. Homework can be a hobby for me. So in 2000, I went to Pepperdine University for their executive MBA program. In the meantime, I was moving up the ladder at UCLA within my field. Until about four years ago, I was running the psychiatric hospital at the medical center. I was a half-time psychiatrist and a half-time administrator.

Still, were you nervous when the dean called?

Absolutely. I called my dad and said, “Send me a bunch of ties,” and told my mom to buy me some suits. Because I never wore that kind of stuff at the psych hospital. I had maybe one good suit and four ties, seriously. I had no idea what I was doing, so I started out asking lots and lots of questions. Plus, I knew the hospital had its issues.

Such as?

Our HR director later on told me, “Your first year was the worst year I’ve ever seen for a hospital director here.” But I didn’t know that at the time. I just figured this was a normal part of the job. I mean, like every day there was some nightmare. We had the move coming, we had the flood, we had celebrity privacy breaches, we had regulators coming in, we were in a bad financial situation with (construction) overruns. The three executives before me had missed their own deadlines for opening the new building.

What was your first big crisis?

I’d been on the job about a week. A contractor installing a coffee machine upstairs made a mistake that caused a leak that turned into a flood, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage. So I come in on a Sunday to check on the progress, and all I see are a couple of guys playing gin at a nurse’s station. No work was going on. So I’m fuming. Then I get a cell call that there’s going to be a story tomorrow in the L.A. Times about how we had leaked medical records of Britney Spears, Farrah Fawcett and Maria Shriver. And they want a statement from me.

How did you handle it?

I knew Maria, so I called to warn her. And she was great. She actually gave me some great crisis management advice. So the next day, I’m out there saying that I took full responsibility – even though the cases in the article all happened before my time. And I declared we were going to take steps to make sure that this would be the most private hospital in America.

How did you measure your success?

Michael Jackson. He was the ultimate test and we nailed it. When he died two years ago, there were no photos released of Michael Jackson at the hospital, no unauthorized information released. And it was a madhouse that day – we’re a hospital, we can’t lock down the building like a prison. But we earlier put in more robust systems, trained people to be more careful. These days, when there’s an issue, it’s more an honest clerical error.

Did you always want to go into medicine?

Actually when I was about 8 or 9 I decided I wanted to be a pediatrician. I think it was I really liked my pediatrician. He was from central casting. He was an authoritative guy with a soft way about him and had answers to these important questions. Plus, I liked science and I loved people, so medicine seemed like a good fit.

Did you go straight to med school?

Actually I managed to graduate early. In 1985, a friend and I decided to take time off and see Europe. We both had about $3,000 saved up and back then you could still do Europe for $30 a day. It was great. We worked as waiters and at one point I thought I might want to go to culinary school, too. But during one of my calls home, my mother told me I had been accepted to Chicago Medical School. So I had a choice. I decided I better go to med school, because I might not get in later.

What attracted you to psychiatry?

I wanted to be a well-rounded pediatrician, so I took a bunch of electives: pediatric radiology, pediatric oncology and child psychiatry. I did a subinternship for about a month at Brown University and loved it beyond belief. In psychiatry, the more I learned, the more I realized the less I knew. It was like this great challenge. And it led to my wife and I ending up here at UCLA.

How was that?

You had to become an adult psychiatrist first and then become a fellow in child psychiatry. One of the best places was UCLA. Plus my wife was a year behind me in med school, and we had to pick a city where there’d be more opportunities for both of us. But I couldn’t see myself settling in Los Angeles. I mean, when you grow up in San Francisco, you hate L.A. So we decided we’d come here, get our training and leave.

You wouldn’t be the first to say that.

Yeah, right. I got to UCLA and of course loved it. Now I go home to San Francisco to visit my brothers, and it’s “My God, it’s cold here. How could anyone want to live here?” We’d become Southern Californians.

Even your office has a Southern California vibe, opening right out into the hospital’s main hall. Was it originally designed that way?

This was actually supposed to be a conference room. The previous guy had planned for a more traditional corner office. But I wanted my office to open right out into the hospital.

Why was that?

I had all these secretaries and heads of staff and other people whose job was to protect me and never let anyone in to see me. They thought they had failed when someone did. And I was thinking they were crazy, of course let these poor people in.

What did you learn from all that talking?

I don’t know what the medical system’s mission statement was four years ago, but it was probably something like, “Aren’t you lucky you get to see us. We’re the best. Wait in line.” That’s how we came across. We were the best technically. But the rest of our care was way off. Now, our purpose is to heal humankind, one patient at a time. We have to heal people and we have to be kind about it.

What was the key to making the change?

It’s not like we made a big cultural change – we just got people to remember why they got into medicine in the first place. All us doctors and nurses got into medicine for the same reasons – we liked our doctors, our grandmothers got sick and received great care. They were all about healing and compassion when they started med school. Our system just beat it out of them.

How do you show that compassion? Give me a concrete example.

We now have a policy that a patient doesn’t have to ask twice for a replacement pair of dentures if his pair goes missing – even if he might have been the one to lose them. And at every unit there is a selection of every type of cell phone charger you might need.

Is that the kind of stuff that led to “Prescription for Excellence”?

Over time, our patient satisfaction stats started going way up and people were taking notice. Then my son encouraged me to read Joseph Mitchell’s book “The Starbucks Experience.” I did. I liked the Starbucks emphasis on the customer. Eventually I met Joseph at a management retreat and we kept in touch.

Whose idea was the book?

Mine, I guess. Joseph calls me about a year after we met and he’s trying to figure out his next book. So it pops into my head to tell him that he should write about us. So he checked us out, and eventually his team came down here for a year. They had full editorial rights. I said go for it – tell us what’s right, tell us what’s wrong and write a book.

How did you like the final product?

The book kinda makes it appear like we knew what we were doing. No way. We took a lot of good steps but we took a lot of missteps, too. And I don’t think we’re anywhere near where we need to be. So I’m proud that we’re the best of the worst, but we have a long way to go.

Sounds like more than a full-time job. How many hours are you here in a typical week?

If I don’t start working on e-mails from home, I’m usually here or at the Santa Monica hospital by around 7 or 7:30 a.m. If I’m not walking the halls and talking with patients or staff, it’s not unusual that I would go back and forth between the two hospitals a couple times a day. Then about five or six nights a week I’m out at events, which could be fundraising, meeting with donors, meeting with doctors – which would mean I’m out until 10 p.m. Then I’ll often come in on the weekends to see patients.

Do you spend much time at home?

The best thing about our new house in Beverly Hills is the home gym. One of my only vices is that I love to exercise and I work out two hours a day. About an hour of cardio a day, then maybe lift and then stretch. I run the stairs at the stadium, but I really, really love my gym. I’m a vegetarian. I keep perfect eating habits until about 10 p.m., then I start looking for cookies.

What about your social life?

My wife and I don’t have much of a social life outside of work-business events. I’ll tell my wife that we’re going to dinner tonight at the Beverly Hilton, and she’ll ask, “So what organ are we celebrating tonight?” But she’s a pretty busy person, too.

What does she do?

Andrea, as my children say, is the real doctor in the family. She’s triple board certified in internal medicine, pulmonary and critical care. She originally did work here at UCLA in the lung transplant program, then went to Cedars-Sinai for a number of years. Now she’s on her own with a concierge practice where she gets to make house calls.

How do you maintain a work-life balance?

I have my workouts, they’re built into my schedule. They keep me calm. I take time with my wife when we’re both not working. And, of course, we take a lot of vacations as a family: Alaska, Costa Rica, Paris. In fact, we just got back from Whistler, (British Columbia). My parents took whole extended family there so it was a reunion.

How about time with your kids?

My daughter, Rachel, is a sophomore in college, and my son, Ryan, is a junior in high school. Despite the hours I have now, when my kids were younger and I was still running the psych hospital, I made of point of being an incredibly involved parent. When my son was younger, I’d coach his basketball and soccer teams.

Thinking back, could you have imagined the career you have now?

No, never. I’m just blown away by how lucky I am to be in this position. I feel there’s just such purpose to my life today.

Dr. David T. Feinberg

TITLE: Chief executive

COMPANY: UCLA Health System

BORN: Hillsborough; 1962.

EDUCATION: B.S., UC Berkeley; M.D., University of Health Sciences/Chicago Medical School; residency and fellowship training in psychiatry and child psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine; MBA, Pepperdine University.

CAREER TURNING POINT: Decided during child psychiatry internship to switch specialty from pediatrics to psychiatry.

PERSONAL: Married to Dr. Andrea Feinberg; two children.

ACTIVITIES: Rigorous exercise routine that includes weight-training and running; reading; travel.

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