Johnese Spisso’s Full Interview as Honoree for Partners’ “Vision & Excellence Healthcare Leadership” Award

Part One: “Doing the Right Thing”

Ensuring patients receive excellent care is a 24 hour-a-day job

Johnese Spisso, MPA, the 2023 recipient of Partners in Care Foundation’s Vision & Excellence in Healthcare Leadership Award, believes it’s important for leaders to walk the talk.

“It’s someone who has a thorough understanding of the challenges and opportunities for the organization and the people working there and the community that we serve,” she said. “It’s someone who’s demonstrating through actions the commitments we have to excellence. I think the staff hold us accountable for making sure we’re delivering the tools and technology that they need to deliver excellent care to patients. For me, it’s a tremendous honor to work with the incredible team at UCLA Health but also a responsibility to be doing the right thing.”

In 2016, Spisso was appointed President of UCLA Health, CEO of UCLA Hospital System and Associate Vice Chancellor of UCLA Health Sciences.

A nationally recognized academic healthcare leader with more than 40 years of experience, she leads UCLA’s hospital system consisting of the UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center, UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital, Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA, UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center, the expansive network of over 200 UCLA Health primary and specialty care clinics throughout Southern California, the UCLA Health Homeless Health care program and the Faculty Practice Group. She is responsible for all aspects of the health system and the regional outreach strategy in the local, state, national and international programs.

“I’ve always felt that it’s a responsibility for us as leaders to be continuously learning as we lead these amazing institutions,” she said. “I try to be that strategic thinker who is thinking about all aspects of the mission and how we lift the organization to deliver on that mission. That takes a team effort, and it really is about being inclusive, being transparent, listening to the ideas and inputs of others, and that includes every level of staff. Our people on the front lines often have the best ideas on what we need to do to improve care. I definitely have an open-door policy, and I try to be a very visible leader.”

Spisso said recognition from the Partners in Care Foundation is “an incredible honor, not only for me but for our whole organization. Everything that their mission stands for – the alignment of not only healthcare but the social determinants of health and providing care for all, particularly underserved populations – aligns with our mission at UCLA Health.”

Spisso started her career as a critical-care nurse in the medical, surgical and transplant intensive care unit at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. She worked her way up to leadership positions at the University of California Davis Medical Center and University of Washington’s Harborview Medical Center before coming to UCLA Health.

“I loved every job that I have had, and I felt that I did each job long enough, a minimum of five years, to master it until I was ready for more,” she said. “It was interesting because when I first went from the chief nursing officer to the chief operating officer, the team was telling me, ‘You are by far the best person to do this job. You know what the needs of the team are, and you will advocate for that. You understand that patient care is our product and, by investing in the resources that we need to create excellent patient care, that will continue to sustain our financial success.’ After thinking about that, I did feel well prepared for that. Each progression after that was a good one and a natural one.”

Because she started her career as a care provider, Spisso likes to stay connected to the care being delivered at UCLA.

“Our role every day, 24 hours a day, is making sure that patients receive excellence in care and that families feel supported through that process,” she said. “Every day, we start out with a daily huddle, doing a check-in across the system, so I can see across the four hospitals and the 200 clinics that we have. What are the issues that we’re seeing? Are we getting patients in on time? Where are we struggling with any type of staffing needs?”

While she’s long past her days of hands-on nursing, Spisso enjoys interacting with staff and families, to make sure that excellent care is being delivered. “I do rounds at least once a week, many times daily if I can, just to see how things are going, because I think you learn so much more from the front-line staff,” she said. “Some of the most rewarding parts of healthcare are when you can see the team having successful outcomes for the patient. That, to me, was always so rewarding, to get that kind of instant feedback.

“I know how emotionally taxing it can be for staff when patients aren’t doing well and there’s not much else we can do for them. I always keep that in mind as we’re looking at resources to support the staff and help them build resiliency how do we best support them.”

Spisso spends much of her time in leadership and administrative meetings, not only for the UCLA health system, UCLA campus and the broader University of California health system, and community engagement activities related to healthcare. “They’re usually very busy days,” she said. “It’s not uncommon to have many hours of meetings every day but I like to make time to round in the hospitals and clinics and talk with patients, families, and staff.

“One of the best things about working in Los Angeles is the opportunity to work with so many community groups that support patient care, like Partners in Care Foundation. In my role, I am actively involved in many of these organizations as their work helps extend what we can do for patients and our goal to improve the health of the community. It’s a great opportunity to connect broadly with the community and make sure that at UCLA Health, we’re connecting and doing our part to meet the needs of the community.”

Spisso is impressed by the medical breakthroughs she’s been able to see at close hand.

“Having spent my career in academic institutions that were doing large amounts of research to improve care and to bring forward new treatments and cures, I have seen so many breakthroughs,” she said. “People who, when I started my career over 40 years ago, weren’t surviving some injuries or illnesses, now are doing very well. The breakthroughs in cancer care and treatments, here at UCLA alone in the past decade … we’ve brought forward 14 new cancer drugs, Herceptin being one of them, that are changing people’s lives. That was exciting to see.

“On the other hand, the financial aspects of healthcare are getting more challenging. How do we continue to safely and effectively staff our institutions when the costs of goods and services – and a highly competitive healthcare labor market – are rising? How do we work in this ecosystem and make it all work? We all spend a lot more time today on the financial side of healthcare.”

The COVID pandemic produced unprecedented challenges, but Spisso said UCLA rose to the occasion.

“Over the past few years, we’ve been able to better serve our community because of the partnership that we have with our research centers,” she said. “We were one of the first in California to be able to do our own COVID-19 testing. We were able to develop a saliva test for COVID-19, SwabSeq, based on the work done in our research labs. For us, we got to see the strength of a teaching institution coming together.

“With our work with LA County, the state, and the other healthcare systems in the region, we all are much better prepared for any type of future emerging infectious disease. We’ve all worked on protocols and policies. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we had to rapidly institute over 300 new patient care policies. You saw how fast and effectively organizations can move when they have to.”

The presentation of Johnese Spisso’s Vision & Excellence in Healthcare Leadership Award will take place at Partners’ 23rd Annual Tribute Dinner on Monday, June 12, 2023. To learn more about this event, register to attend the event, or sign up as a sponsor, please visit Partners’ 2023 Annual Tribute Dinner.

Part Two – “Every Rung of the Ladder”

An ability to draw from a variety of perspectives leads to effective leadership.

Johnese Spisso, MPA, the 2023 recipient of Partners in Care Foundation’s Vision & Excellence in Healthcare Leadership Award, knew from an early age that she wanted to go into healthcare.

“I was fortunate to have great roles models in my parents. My mother was a teacher and a principal in two public school districts and my father worked as a plant manager in the automotive industry. My mother had three sisters who were nurses,” she said. “Growing up, seeing my mom working in the service industry and seeing three aunts working in nursing, I was always intrigued by the work that they were doing and how happy they seemed to be helping others. As a little girl, my older sister and I were both very enamored with nursing as a profession.” Her older sister went on to become a certified registered nurse anesthetist.

Spisso was a candy-striper while in high school. “I enjoyed not only taking care of patients but also seeing how nurses were the team leaders, in my opinion, of bringing everyone together, as well as being the main liaison with families.”

A graduate of St. Francis School of Nursing in Pennsylvania, Spisso started her career as a critical care registered nurse in the medical, surgical and transplant intensive care unit at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which she described as “one of the most dynamic and innovative units in the country.” Dr. Thomas Starzl, often referred to as “the father of modern transplantation,” had recently relocated from the University of Colorado to the University of Pittsburgh.

“It was a teaching institution, so the opportunity to learn there was remarkable,” she said. “I liked the intensity of critical care and the chance to use all of your skills and knowledge around science and pathophysiology to understand how to best care for patients. It was a rewarding experience.”

She moved to California to work as a charge nurse in the surgical ICU at the University of California Davis Medical Center. During her 12 years at UC Davis, she earned a master’s degree in public administration and health administration at the University of San Francisco while working full-time. At UC Davis, she rose from assistant nurse manager to nurse manager to director of the critical care, trauma and burn center, emergency services and the Life Flight Air-Medical Program.

After getting married to radiologist Ross Hartling, she moved to Seattle to work as the chief nursing officer at the University of Washington’s Harborview Medical Center. She was promoted to Chief Operating Officer, Chief Health System Officer, and Vice President of Medical Affairs for the University of Washington. In that role, she was responsible for two academic medical centers, two community hospitals, a network of community clinics and the Airlift Northwest flight program. She played a major role in expanding collaborations with regional hospitals and in the operational integration of two major community hospitals into UW Medicine. She also was instrumental in leading the development of a statewide trauma system.

In 2016, she was recruited to become President of UCLA Health, CEO of UCLA Hospital System and Associate Vice Chancellor of UCLA Health Sciences.

“I feel like I’ve worked at every rung of the ladder, which has been very helpful,” she said. “In healthcare, patient care is our business, and I always felt I had a very good lens of the needs for patient care, for the bedside providers, for the team, for the physicians, and also what was important to patients and their families.

“I was in the right institutions that had confidence in me and encouraged me to expand and take on more duties. Both the University of California system and the University of Washington system are leaders in supporting women in leadership and supporting diversity in leadership. It was helpful to see that it was possible to succeed in organizations that had that commitment.”

While her aunts inspired her to pursue a career in healthcare, Spisso said her greatest role model was her mother.

“Coming up through my career, I had many great mentors at the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Washington and the University of California, but for me, it always comes back to my mother,” Spisso said. “She was a working mom at a time when it wasn’t as common to be a working mother. Being supportive of my father, being active in community charities like the March of Dimes and raising three children while working full-time, she showed us that you can do the things that you want to do through hard work and dedication.

“You kind of take it for granted when you’re growing up, seeing that, but when my daughter was in high school, I remember asking her, ‘I couldn’t volunteer at school all the time like other moms did. Do you ever feel like were shortchanged?’ She said, ‘No, mom, I always looked at you and thought your goals are the goals that I want to have. All my friends thought that, too.’ I think particularly for young women, it’s important for them to see other women as leaders.” (Her daughter is now a law student.)

One of the criteria for being chosen as a Partners honoree is a commitment to mentoring rising leaders in healthcare. Spisso said young people at UCLA and around the country have reached out to her.

“It’s one of my favorite things to do,” she said. “I usually have multiple people that I’m communicating with, giving them advice, and also giving them opportunities. One of the things I like to do at UCLA with the next generation of up-and-comers is giving them opportunities to do public speaking, to present at conferences and to take on additional projects. While it is additional work, it’s such a valuable learning experience. I encourage them to not worry about rapid promotions but savor the experiences along the way.”

Spisso is active in community leadership and has served as the Los Angeles Community Chair for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Light the Night Walk, as well as the Los Angeles Community Chair for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women Luncheon.

“Those organizations provide a tremendous amount of support to patients and families, and also support research that helps institutions discover new treatments and therapies,” she said.

She’s also part of UCLA’s community engagement partnership with the LA Lakers Foundation and the LA Dodgers Foundation to bring our healthcare services to underserved parts of the community. “I enjoy participating in that, as well as our Sound Body Sound Mind program, which provides fitness and nutrition counseling in over 120 schools throughout Los Angeles, most of them in the LA Unified School District. It’s important to me to make sure that we are improving the health and well-being in our community, and particularly for our youth.”

A member of the board of directors of the Music Center and the LA Ballet, Spisso believes in opening up the arts to people from all walks of life. “We’re looking at ways we can increase access, particularly to underserved populations, because I feel the arts are so therapeutic,” she said.

Spisso has published numerous articles and book chapters on healthcare leadership, and she serves on several national boards, including the American Association of Medical Colleges’ Council of Teaching Hospitals and Health Systems and the Board of Vizient. She has received numerous awards and recognition throughout her career, including being named to Modern Healthcare’s Top 25 Most Influential Women Leaders in 2019, LA Business Journal’s 500 Most Influential Leaders in Los Angeles in 2020, Modern Healthcare’s Top 50 Clinical Leaders of 2020 in the U.S., and the Los Angeles Business Journal Women of Influence Award for Health Care in 2021 and 2022.

To learn more about Partners’ Annual Tribute Dinner, register to attend the event, or sign up as a sponsor, please visit Partners’ 2023 Annual Tribute Dinner.

Partners in Care Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in San Fernando. Its mission is to shape the evolving health system by developing and spreading high-value models of community-based care and self-management for diverse populations with chronic conditions.

Johnese Spisso, RN, MPA