Mass General Brigham has chosen a Baltimore surgeon with long experience in hospital leadership — though few connections to Boston — to be president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and help push two of the country’s top medical centers into becoming a more unified hospital system.
Dr. Robert S.D. Higgins, 62, the surgeon-in-chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital and director of surgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is believed to be the first Black person leading an academic medical center in the Mass General Brigham system.
In addition to serving as Brigham president, Higgins will hold the post of executive vice president of the hospital’s parent company, the state’s largest hospital system and one of the nation’s leading research institutions. He will start in December.
“I’m humbled and honored to have an opportunity to join such a prestigious institution,” Higgins said in a brief interview Thursday. His top goal, he said, is “to reinforce the vision the leadership has for building a world-class internationally recognized health system as well as building upon the extraordinary accomplishments of Brigham and Women’s.”
Dr. Anne Klibanski, the hospital system’s chief executive, called Higgins “an ideal choice” because of his experience as a physician, researcher, teacher, and administrator.
“He really does represent exactly what we are looking for right now,” she said. “We are looking to transform care, using the research and innovation that we are known for, to bring outstanding care closer to patients’ homes, at lower cost.”
Higgins replaces Dr. Elizabeth “Betsy” Nabel, who stepped down in March.
Nabel faced controversy when it was revealed that, in addition to leading the Brigham, she received considerable outside income from serving on the boards of two drug companies.
Higgins said he does not serve on any boards of for-profit companies. And Klibanski said he underwent extensive vetting for conflicts of interest, and “that was simply not an issue with him.”
Mass General Brigham is still searching for a replacement for Peter Slavin, president of the group’s other flagship hospital, Massachusetts General, who announced his intention to resign in April. Klibanski said that search will conclude “fairly soon.”
In his dual roles with the Brigham and its parent company, Higgins will take on the wrenching challenge of unifying a sprawling system whose founding hospitals remain mostly separate and sometimes rivalrous more than 25 years after their merger. The hospital system, Klibanski said, is committed to “integrating these phenomenal academic medical centers into one academic medical center with patients at its center.”
“Whenever organizations evolve and change, it can be unsettling,” Higgins said, acknowledging that he’s heard of tensions and discontent among the staff over the effort to merge. “I’m going to do my best to learn the system ... and apply the skills I’ve acquired over the last 30 years.”
That includes, he said, supporting the physicians, nurses, technicians, and others who have struggled through the pandemic. “We have a responsibility to listen and learn from their experiences and support them to the best of our ability,” he said.
Higgins will also oversee efforts to bring hospital services into communities outside of Boston, another contentious effort. At Hopkins, Higgins led the expansion of surgical services across the region.
Several Massachusetts hospitals have Black presidents. But Higgins will be only the second at a major Boston teaching hospital, after Children’s Hospital president Kevin B. Churchwell.
His experience studying racial disparities in health care will influence his work, Higgins said.
“It’s pretty clear that we can improve our outcomes by providing better access and state-of-the-art treatment,” he said. “I’m excited about joining a team that has that as their vision and their mission.”
Described in a hospital press release as both a well-known researcher and a leading authority in heart and lung transplantation, minimally invasive cardiac surgery, and mechanical circulatory support, Higgins said his new leadership roles will probably take up all his time and he wasn’t sure whether he will continue practicing surgery. “I hope to still maintain some contact with clinical care,” he said.
Higgins’s biggest challenge, Klibanski said, will be getting his footing in institutions where he has never worked. But he does have some local connections, she said.
“Since the announcement,” she said, “I have heard from such a large number of people across the system and across the city who are really looking forward to working with him, many of whom have crossed paths with him.”
Higgins earned his bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College and medical degree from the Yale School of Medicine. He completed a residency in general surgery and served as chief resident at the University Hospitals of Pittsburgh, and earned a master’s degree in health services administration at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Before working at Johns Hopkins, Higgins led the Comprehensive Transplant Center at The Ohio State University Medical Center and served as a senior registrar in transplantation at the Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, England, the United Kingdom’s largest cardiothoracic surgical program and main heart-lung transplant center. He also served as a major in the US Army Reserve Medical Corps for 13 years.
Higgins has served as the president of the Society of Thoracic Surgeons, president of the United Network for Organ Sharing, president of the Society of Black Academic Surgeons, president and founding member of the Association of Black Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgeons, and a member of the Board of Directors of the American Board of Thoracic Surgery.
Scheduled to start at the Brigham on Dec. 1, Higgins said he will travel to Boston often before then to get to know the hospital and its workers. When he moves to the area, he will be joined by his wife, Molly, who runs an educational program for Baltimore youth, and he has just started to look for a place to live. The couple have three adult children.
Correction: An earlier version of the story gave incorrect information about Black hospital presidents at Mass General Brigham. Higgins is the first Black president of one of the academic medical centers, not the entire system.