As a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in the 1980s, Dr. Anne Klibanski conceived of a new approach to help patients with pituitary gland disorders.
She launched a clinic where a team of specialists — endocrinologists, neurologists, surgeons, and others — worked together to treat these patients.
That experience of bringing together people with different backgrounds could turn out to be particularly valuable. Klibanski is the new chief executive of Mass. General’s parent company, Partners HealthCare, where she faces similar challenges on a much larger scale.
She is charged with uniting the different factions of the sprawling hospital network, where pride and rivalries can run deep. It’s a task her predecessors have tackled with varying degrees of success.
“The board has made it very clear that it’s time to really start thinking of ourselves as a single integrated health care system,” Klibanski said in an interview Wednesday. “It really means working together and leveraging the expertise around our system.”
The Partners network includes thousands of doctors and more than a dozen hospitals, anchored by Mass. General and Brigham and Women’s, Boston’s largest academic medical centers. Klibanski has been interim CEO of the nonprofit health system since February; on Tuesday night, Partners board members met at the company’s Prudential Tower headquarters and voted to give her the job permanently.
Klibanski begins the job as Boston-based Partners continues an effort to rethink its role and strategy. As part of that process, Partners is planning a new initiative to expand health care services in outpatient settings, outside of its hospitals. The company also plans to invest in digital health care tools such as machine learning software, Klibanski said.
Klibanski brings a different background to the corner office than Partners’ previous CEOs. She’s an endocrinologist, a researcher, a mentor — and the first woman to lead the organization, which is Massachusetts’ most powerful health care provider and largest private employer.
She’s had a notable career as a physician and scientist but has less experience in hospital finance, insurance contracts, and government affairs. She has a reputation for listening to others, managing egos, and building consensus, and she is liked by leaders at Partners’ teaching hospitals, according to several people with knowledge of Klibanski’s work at Partners.
Klibanski, who has served as chief academic officer of Partners since 2012, said she tries to bring people together under shared goals — much as she did at the neuroendocrine unit at Mass. General.
“You don’t force them to be together, you have them want to come together on these common goals,” she said.
Mass. General’s physician-in-chief, Dr. Katrina Armstrong, said as interim CEO, Klibanski made leaders across the Partners system “feel heard.”
“In the last several months, she’s created a whole new approach to the decision-making at the Partners level, to make sure the pieces of the system come together,” Armstrong said.
Relationships at Partners have been complicated for years. While Mass. General and the Brigham work together on many programs, they have also maintained much of their independence, at times even competing in some areas. The teaching hospitals have traditionally balked at attempts by Partners’ corporate office to dictate clinical affairs.
Partners board chairman Scott Sperling said Klibanski has shown her ability to navigate “the enormous complexity” of the hospital company.
“The leadership had really rallied around Anne,” he said. “She’s a person that people have a lot of respect for.”
It remains unclear if Klibanski’s efforts to integrate Partners will be more successful than her predecessor, Dr. David Torchiana, a former Mass. General executive and heart surgeon who became Partners CEO in 2015.
Torchiana had pushed to expand Partners by growing aggressively in Rhode Island and by considering an acquisition of one of Massachusetts’ largest health insurers, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care. Tensions and disagreements about strategy grew under Torchiana’s leadership, and in January he announced that he would step down.
Klibanski, 68, could face similar resistance.
“I predict that her most arduous battles will be with internal constituencies — rather than insurers, employers, and the government,” said Dr. Paul Hattis, a professor at the Tufts University School of Medicine.
Partners was created through the 1994 merger of Mass. General and the Brigham, which joined forces to counter the power of health insurance companies. The system has since grown to include Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Spaulding Rehabilitation Network, Massachusetts Eye and Ear, and other hospitals. It also owns an insurance company, AllWays Health Partners (formerly Neighborhood Health Plan).
Partners hospitals are considered among the best in the country, but in Massachusetts they have also faced criticism for using their market power to charge high prices, which are paid by patients, employers, and insurers.
The company is facing a new challenge from Beth Israel Lahey Health, a health system launched earlier this year through the merger of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and the Lahey hospital system — with a goal of drawing business away from Partners.
“Partners is a giant, high-profile employer in Massachusetts, and Dr. Klibanski will instantly become one of the most influential people in the state,” said David E. Williams, president of the consulting firm Health Business Group.
As a good listener, Klibanski could successfully unite the various factions at Partners. “On the other hand,” he said, “listening might not be the issue. Partners might need someone to bang people’s heads together.”