From his first job as a doctor more than three decades ago to his current role in the upper echelons of academic medicine, Dr. Robert S. D. Higgins has grown accustomed to being the first Black person to hold a position.
Higgins, an accomplished heart and lung transplant surgeon, is now the first Black person to serve as president of Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He is charged with leading the prestigious hospital through a complex integration with Massachusetts General Hospital and the other institutions that make up the Mass General Brigham system.
His history of career firsts is critical to how he’s approaching the job.
The son of one of the few Black doctors to build a career in the segregated South, Higgins is focused on diversifying the Brigham’s workforce and developing a new generation of doctors that includes more women and people of color — people who historically have faced barriers to careers in medicine.
In his first weeks on the job, this has become a top priority, Higgins said in an interview in his corner office at the Brigham.
“I wasn’t sure about where I was going when I started my academic career, because there wasn’t anybody who looked like me in leadership roles,” said Higgins, the former surgeon-in-chief at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. “Now my responsibility is to stand up and be seen and heard, and hopefully be a role model.”
“Hopefully, someone might aspire to be like me, and I have to reach back and help them,” he said.
Nationally, only 2.9 percent of medical students are Black men, a figure that has dipped slightly in 40 years. Black women represent 4.4 percent of medical students.
There are wide disparities in the medical staffs at big hospitals, too. At the Brigham, 2.8 percent of physicians identify as Black or African American and 5.8 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino — yet 10.4 percent of patients are Black and 11.4 percent of patients are Hispanic.
Higgins’s interest in health and medicine began early. His father was a doctor at a clinic in Charleston, S.C., in the 1950s. He died in a car crash when Higgins was just 5, but his legacy and his unfinished work in medicine stayed with Higgins.
After graduating from high school in Albany, N.Y., and playing football at Dartmouth, Higgins went to medical school at Yale and began training as a cardiac and transplant surgeon. On his first day as a resident physician in Pittsburgh, he met a nurse who later became his wife. They have three adult children.
He has performed hundreds of heart and lung transplant operations over the course of his career. He fondly remembers his first successful operations and keeps pictures of the patients — and a picture of his father at work — in his new office at the Brigham.
All this experience with high-stakes surgery forced Higgins to practice remaining calm, even when the situation was critical, he said.
He was last in the operating room in September; his new responsibilities don’t allow time for surgery.
Dr. Redonda Miller, president of the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, said Higgins brings the same thoughtful and meticulous approach to hospital leadership that he did to surgery.
“He understands that a leader must not just live in the moment, but also must look ahead and create a vision for where the institution is heading,” she said in an e-mail. “And he understands that a leader needs to encourage and inspire and reassure.”
At Johns Hopkins, Higgins worked to diversify the department of surgery, hiring nine faculty members who are women or people of color, and appointing three women as division chiefs. Amid the national reckoning on race in 2020, Higgins took on the additional job of senior associate dean for diversity and inclusion at the Hopkins school of medicine.
Dr. Jonathan Efron, a colorectal surgeon at Johns Hopkins and friend of Higgins, said Higgins created a welcoming environment for surgeons of different backgrounds.
“We are a very different department now than when he first came in,” said Efron, senior vice president in the office of physicians at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “That was something that was a little uncomfortable at first, because it required we change the way we evaluate people that we were going to hire.
“You have to make a significant effort to search out and to mentor underrepresented minorities and women, to bring them into the field of surgery, to make them feel welcome and wanted where that feeling may not have been there before,” Efron said.
Higgins has been touring the Brigham’s sprawling campus in the Longwood Medical Area since he started his new job. One recent afternoon during a visit to the radiation oncology department, he spotted Dr. Leou Ismael Banla, a second-year resident.
Banla, who grew up in the West African nation of Togo before attending college and medical school in the United States, is Black.
Higgins initiated a conversation and invited him to lunch. For Banla, it was a meaningful gesture.
“As a medical student, even prior to medical school, looking around and not seeing a lot of physicians that are my color has made it more challenging,” Banla said. “When you don’t have people that look like you doing something you aspire to do, the self-doubt is just amplified. It’s important for Black men that make it into medicine to almost pay it forward and serve as mentors to future generations.”
Higgins, 63, was hired after a national search to replace Dr. Elizabeth “Betsy” Nabel, who left last March to work in the biotech sector. Dr. Sunil Eappen, the Brigham’s chief medical officer, served as interim president until Higgins started in November.
Higgins spent six years at Johns Hopkins and before that was chief of surgery at the Ohio State University medical center. New to the Boston hospital market, he brings an outsider’s perspective to a job that sometimes involves navigating internal politics and smoothing tensions when clinical programs and leadership consolidate.
So far, Mass General Brigham executives have begun merging the departments of radiology and emergency medicine across their many hospitals, and they’re planning similar changes in other departments.
Higgins said he’s following the lead of Mass General Brigham’s chief executive, Dr. Anne Klibanski, and its board of trustees, led by private equity investor Scott Sperling, to transform a group of loosely connected hospitals into one cohesive enterprise.
“We want to honor the past,” he said he tells people resistant to change, “but we have to create a sustainable future, and we need to do it now while we have the opportunity.”
Higgins texts and talks with Dr. David Brown, the new president of Mass. General, in a manner and pace that previous leaders of the two big teaching hospitals never did. Both are executive vice presidents at Mass General Brigham, part of the senior group in charge of shaping strategy for the health system.
If Higgins is an outsider, Brown is the opposite — a lifer who trained at Mass. General and never left.
“He will, I hope, push me to think about things differently,” Brown said. “And I will help him with understanding the culture and the commitment here in Boston across Mass General Brigham and Harvard Medical School.”
Brown said he and Higgins are not focused on the historic rivalry between Mass. General and the Brigham. “We’re much more alike than we are different,” Brown said. “Harnessing that power in a coordinated way will allow us to have even more impact. I’m really bullish on Mass General Brigham and not particularly interested in the competitions of the past.”
Higgins enjoys walking the halls of the Brigham. He strikes up conversations with physicians and technicians, security guards and department chiefs. He talks about medicine, and about sports.
But Trish Powers, an operating room nurse who chairs the nurses union at the Brigham, said many nurses have yet to meet Higgins and questioned whether he would have authority to effect real change, as power shifts from the hospitals to the Mass General Brigham system level.
“MGB Somerville drives the bus,” she said, referring to the health system’s central offices in Somerville.
Higgins said he wants to be a bridge builder.
“I’m hopeful, having been a change agent in other environments, I can help facilitate change in a rational and thoughtful way without alienating people or making them feel defensive,” he said. “If it was successful at a place like Hopkins, maybe it could be successful here.”
Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.