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5 questions with Karl Ulrich

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, May 8, 2014, at 7:49 a.m.

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As a young man in the 1970s, Karl Ulrich had plans of becoming a Spanish teacher and maybe coaching football or hockey.

But a two-year stint in the Peace Corps after college helping tuberculosis patients in South Korea changed his plans, and he’s had a career in medicine ever since.

Now Ulrich is Via Christi’s chief clinical officer. He started the position in February.

The Rochester, Minn., native attended Mankato State College, now called Minnesota State University of Mankato. He has a medical degree from the University of Minnesota and completed a four-year psychiatry residency at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. He also has a master’s degree in medical management from Tulane University.

Ulrich is the former president and CEO of Marshfield Clinic, which has 55 locations throughout Wisconsin. Most recently he was the regional chief physician executive for Dignity Health in California.

He lives with his wife, HeeSoon. They have four grown children.

Q. 1 What brought you to Via Christi?

A. At the same time I took the job (at Dignity Health), I agreed to sit on the Via Christi board. So I had served on the board for about pretty close to a year and a half, and it was during my exposure to the board and working with Jeff Korsmo (Via Christi’s president and CEO) that we began discussing whether or not I would be a fit to come work here.

I liked what Via Christi was working on as far as priorities: a high-reliability organization, patient safety coming to the forefront, those kinds of things. I thought it was a great fit for what I wanted to see done as well.

Q. 2 How did your time in Korea impact your career?

A. That came as a big surprise to me. I was not intending to go into medicine at all. I loved teaching and coaching and had that as my life plan, but it was only through the experience of actually working with patients in Korea that I discovered a newfound love, and that was the practice of medicine.

My initial thought was to probably go into primary care, like family practice or internal medicine. But during medical school, during my psychiatry rotation, I was very shocked to find that I really enjoyed psychiatry.

Q. 3 What are some of the changes in health care that you think are important to improving outcomes and lowering costs?

A. The concept of being paid ... on a fee-for-service basis, which in a certain sense means the more you do, the more you can bill for, and taking that concept and moving toward what we call pay for performance, which hopefully will decrease the cost of care over time.

I think it’s critical for us to say we really need to get paid for outcomes. ... We’re starting now to see some of these elemental changes beginning to take effect.

Q. 4 Any specific goals for Via Christi?

A. We would love to be involved with businesses, especially in Wichita where you have businesses with international affiliations. They begin to become noncompetitive in those international markets if the cost for them to provide health care to their employees is prohibitive. Their capacity to bid on international jobs becomes impaired because their inherent cost structure is high because they provide health insurance to their employees. We become the culprit, to some degree.

We need to assume that responsibility, beyond just the patient-physician interaction, but understand ourselves as being part of not only a national economy but a local economy and take on that responsibility to decrease costs.

Q. 5 What are some of the ways you hope to do that?

A. If you look at health care costs, there’s a lot of information there now that chronic disease is really where the cost is in health care.

We need to be much more proactive so when a patient is diagnosed with diabetes, for example, we have an interaction with that patient on a constant basis. We’re calling, checking to see how they’re doing, are they following their diet? So between visits, there needs to be a lot more communication than there was in the past.

The concept of an Accountable Care Organization has as one of its main goals being timely and providing much better interactions with patients. The ACO is really just a structure of a network of providers that will communicate, and you need really great electronic health records.

Reach Kelsey Ryan at 316-269-6752 or kryan@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @kelsey_ryan.

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