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Dr. Ron Anderson, Parkland Hospital's Longtime Leader, Dies At Age 68


Ron Anderson, the doctor who ran Dallas County’s largest medical center for nearly 30 years, died Thursday night. The 68-year-old health-care pioneer left the Parkland Hospital job two years ago, and had been suffering from advanced liver cancer. 

The longtime Parkland leader is credited with working to establish health clinics in poor neighborhoods. In his final years at Parkland, he led a successful bond campaign to pay for the new $1.3 billion hospital scheduled to open in 2015.

During his time at Parkland, Anderson was focused on social justice and healthcare excellence, said Steve Love, president of the Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council, and a friend and colleague of Anderson’s.

“He absolutely championed the plight of the most vulnerable in our society," Love said. "Here are many lives that have been saved in North Texas because of his clinical, caring compassion for others.”

But in 2011, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services found serious problems in several areas of the public hospital that threatened patient safety. Last year, Parkland passed a critical federal inspectionof mandated patient care and safety improvements. 

Although Anderson stepped down after those failed hospital inspections, Love says he remained committed to his principles.

“No matter what he was facing, no matter what the controversy, he had his own individual guiding principles," Love said. "He did what he truly thought was right and he used that as his foundation to move forward.”

Anderson’s efforts led to more community healthcare throughout Dallas County. That includes 12 local health care clinics, 12 school-based clinics and the Homeless Outreach Medical Services, which provides medical care to homeless shelters around Dallas County.

Eliminating "patient-dumping"

Parkland is a health care giant that handles more than 1 million patient visits a year. It has the region's only burn center, and employs more than 1,000 physicians.

Even as CEO, Anderson refused to stop seeing patients.

“He would be asked to curtail or stop, but that was an important part of him," said Sharon Phillips, executive vice president and chief of off campus operations at Parkland. She worked with Anderson for 25 years. "He was first and foremost a physician and wanted to stay connected with the patients.”

Phillips says his vision of health care for all, regardless of ability to pay, paved the way for Parkland’s system of community clinics. It was an idea he had to fight for decades ago.

“The concept of community oriented primary care was not well known in the United States," Phillips said. "Some of the examples that people were familiar with were more based on going into a community and maybe starting a garden -- not really applying it in the healthcare arena.”

The concept was also politically and racially charged. Pastor and civil rights activist Peter Johnson says the conservative white community was skeptical about Anderson’s push to spend money in South and West Dallas.

“We worked hand-in-hand in fighting to get those clinics built," Johnson said. "Not only did we have to fight against the white political structure, but also the black doctors who saw them as a threat to the business."

Anderson didn’t back down, and convinced Dallas County commissioners that providing care in neighborhoods where families lived would improve health and eventually lower costs to the main hospital.

Health care officials would come from as far away as Thailand to study Parkland’s system of health centers.

The fight to provide health care to the most vulnerable led Anderson into a local and national battle in the mid-80s.

He wanted to stop something known as “patient-dumping.” That’s where other hospitals would transfer patients who couldn’t pay the bills to places like Parkland.

Anderson’s efforts led to the passage of legislation concerning indigent care in Texas. It also led to federal legislation in 1986 that banned the practice.

Work at Parkland "is your life"

Anderson initially refused Parkland’s offer to take over the hospital. He was eventually persuaded, but he promised only five years. He was just 35 at the time.

“Work at Parkland isn’t a job,” Anderson once said. “It is what you do — who you are. It is your life. There are very few places where you can get that.”

He said that at Parkland, employees can take care of the "least of our brethren."

Anderson once told a UT-Southwestern graduating class: "We cannot be paternalistic toward patients and must accept their cultural, religious, ethnic and social differences. We must respect our patients’ autonomy and desire for wholeness, which should stimulate us to address the social justice issues affecting our patients’ lives.”

Mentoring young doctors

Anderson also had a passion for mentoring medical students. Ruben Amarasingham met him as a resident in 1996.

“I remember just extremely late nights; he was the CEO of the hospital but he would be there at the bedside very concerned about every element of the patient’s care,” Amarasingham said. “He brought that spirit and that was what was so striking and remarkable about him.”

Anderson stayed in touch with young doctors, and often convinced them to return to Parkland. After a stint at Johns Hopkins, Amarasingham is now director of Parkland’s Center for Clinical Innovation.

“No matter how far or remote you were from Dallas he would check in,” Amarasingham said. “He would stay in touch no matter how busy he was. It was a prime reason why I came back. There aren’t a lot of opportunities where you know someone really cares deeply about how to mentor you and realize how your talents can be used.”

Somehow, while tending to patients and politics, Anderson still found time to be active at First Baptist Church of Dallas and to read everything from spiritual literature to ancient classics to medical journals. It wasn’t uncommon late at night to see the light on in his office, and a book in his hand.

His office walls were lined with Native American artifacts, some of which he collected while in his home state of Oklahoma. He had an appreciation of Native American culture. He often visited reservations, and his interest in Native American lore "became almost an obsession," Parkland says.

Anderson is survived by his wife, four children and one grandson. Funeral services for Anderson will be at 2 p.m. Wednesday at First Baptist Church of Dallas, 1707 San Jacinto.

The KERA radio story.

Anderson honored with statue and clinic

Credit Parkland Hospital / Facebook
A look at the current and new Parkland hospital buildings. The current building opened in 1954. The new building is scheduled to open in 2015.

Anderson's death comes just days after Parkland officials announced they would feature a statue of Anderson at the new hospital. It will be placed in the foyer.

The tribute was supposed to be a surprise, but the announcement was made early because of Anderson's illness.

In addition to the statue, the hospital’s board unanimously agreed to name Parkland’s new outpatient clinic after Anderson.

Anderson helped secure public financing for the $1.3 billion hospital. The new Parkland hospital, double the size of the original, is expected to open next spring. 

Phillips says the statue and outpatient clinic pay tribute to Anderson's vision of social justice and healthcare.

“He made the country believe how good healthcare could be for anyone," she said.

Anderson talks about healthcare

In 2010, Anderson talked about the new Parkland hospital, double the size of the original.

“There have been a lot of new hospitals built recently, very few new public hospitals," he told KERA. "The ones that have built have downsized. Ours is one of the only ones in the last decade to actually expand capacity to meet the real needs of our community and not transfer this to the private sector.”

Watch Anderson talk about Parkland in this KERA-TV program from 2010:

Anderson talks about a new Parkland

In 2008, Anderson appeared on KERA-FM's "Think" with Krys Boyd. He talked about the need for a new Parkland Hospital. Here's that interview:

The 2008 KERA "Think" interview with Parkland CEO Ron Anderson.

At the groundbreaking of the new Parkland hospital

Anderson spoke at the groundbreaking of the new hospital in 2010. He spoke about the hospital's history:

Previous profiles featuring Anderson

Against patient "dumping"

Here’s a 2010 profile from D Magazine’s CEO:

"The lore surrounding Parkland hospital’s legendary chief executive officer is nearly as extensive as the sprawling public-hospital system he leads. Dr. Ron Anderson has become synonymous with Parkland, it’s commonly said. But the day is edging closer when that no longer will be the case.

"Now one of the country’s longest-tenured hospital bosses, Anderson actually rejected the job offer when he got it in 1982—three times. Soon after assuming the post, at age 35, he helped lead a crusade against patient 'dumping,' the now-banned practice of transferring medically unstable—and uninsured—patients to another hospital. He’s won numerous awards over the years and, in 2009, appeared for the fifth consecutive year on Modern Healthcare magazine’s list of the country’s 50 most powerful physician executives.

Failed inspection led to Anderson's removal

In 2011, The Dallas Morning News explored what led to Anderson's removal:

Parkland board and county commissioner support for Anderson took a turn starting in May, after the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced Parkland would face a health and safety inspection. The inspection was prompted by the February death of George Cornell, a psychiatric patient whose rights were found to have been repeatedly violated. A team of about a dozen inspectors spent about two weeks at Parkland in July. Their findings, released publicly last month, found violations of nine federal regulations. The most severe were failures to prevent risk of infection and disease, and to screen and stabilize emergency-room patients — categories that led CMS to declare that patients were in “immediate jeopardy.” County commissioner [Elba] Garcia said the inspection findings made Anderson’s removal the right step. “When the CMS report came out, it’s like, ‘OK, guys, there it is. It’s now or never, and there’s no way back,’” Garcia said Wednesday. “We lose this funding, and we’re not going to be able to survive.”

Focusing on the "geriatric tsunami"

The Dallas Business Journal profiled Anderson in 2012:

Along the way, he developed a reputation as a strong leader who kept the best interests of patients, Parkland employees and the hospital’s mission top of mind as he not only oversaw the existing hospital, but planned and rallied support for a $1.3 billion replacement hospital. As he cuts ties with the institution at the end of this month, his track record is mixed, clouded by problems at Parkland in the areas of patient safety and quality of care. Anderson’s story, like that of Parkland itself, is a story of success, mistakes, and now, one of moving on. The Bible doesn’t mention retirement, Anderson, a deacon at First Baptist Church of Dallas, pointed out as he sat in his office overlooking Stemmons Freeway for what would be one of the last times. Anderson, 66, doesn’t see a rocking chair in his future any time soon. Instead, he’ll spend the next chapter of his life consulting and looking for other challenges. Anderson is particularly interested in health policy, he said. One area in which he expects to consult is the 'geriatric tsunami' that’s hitting the health care industry, he said.

Focusing on public health

In 2013, KERA reported on Anderson’s efforts to keep people healthy and out of hospitals:

Credit Parkland Hospital
Dr. Ron Anderson was the longtime CEO of Parkland Hospital.

“I would like to spend my last years finding a way that’s not 'hospital.'”

Dr. Ron Anderson spent 29 years as CEO of Parkland Hospital.  Now, he wants to create a new collaborative effort to keep people healthy and out of hospitals.

Anderson wants to create the Dallas County Community Health Institute. He calls it a move from traditional healthcare to public health.

“I think that’s where reform in the nation has failed,” Anderson said. “Because it’s not really paid attention to things we can prevent. That’s the cheapest.  Prevention is always better than a cure.  That was said in the 15th century, and I believe that. And so that’s what I’d like to spend some time doing.”

The institute would be a collaborative effort that would tackle issues like health care access, education, job creation, transportation, and public health programs. The focus would be prevention and the goal would be to create a healthier community without having to go to the hospital.  

Reaction to Anderson's death

"Dr. Ron Anderson’s dedication to the needs of the most vulnerable of our community was unwavering," said Dr. Daniel K. Podolsky, president of UT Southwestern Medical Center. "His example should inspire generations of providers to care for and about all those in our society.  Through his stewardship of Parkland, in partnership with the physicians of UT Southwestern, legions have received care and comfort not available to them otherwise."

Anderson’s biography

Credit Parkland Hospital
Dr. Ron Anderson was the longtime CEO of Parkland Hospital.

Here are highlights of Anderson’s career, courtesy of the Kaiser Family Foundation:

  • Anderson was president and CEO of Parkland from 1982-2012. He previously served as Parkland’s medical director for ambulatory care and emergency services.
  • Anderson served on the executive committee of the State Task Force on Indigent Health Care and in 1985 played a role in the passage of landmark legislation concerning indigent health care in Texas.
  • He was appointed co-chair of the Attorney General’s Task Force to study not-for-profit hospitals and unsponsored charity care in 1988, and served as a member of the Texas governor’s Health Policy Task Force in 1991-1992.
  • Anderson is past chairman of the Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council; the Texas Association of Public and Non-Profit Hospitals; the Texas Board of Health; the National Association of Public Hospitals; and the National Public Health and Hospital Institute. Anderson was also a member of the Kaiser Commission on the Future of Medicaid.

Source: Kaiser Family Foundation bio

From Parkland

Explore Anderson's life and career on the Parkland website.

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.
Eric Aasen is KERA’s managing editor. He helps lead the station's news department, including radio and digital reporters, producers and newscasters. He also oversees, the station’s news website, and manages the station's digital news projects. He reports and writes stories for the website and contributes pieces to KERA radio. He's discussed breaking news live on various public radio programs, including The Takeaway, Here & Now and Texas Standard, as well as radio and TV programs in New Zealand and the United Kingdom.