Phillip Robinson of Lankenau Medical Center talks about leading and humility

The president of the medical center, Robinson has announced plans to retire. In an interview with Chief Healthcare Executive, he talks about the lessons he has learned and shares his advice for other leaders.

It was only supposed to be a temporary job.

In 2010, Phillip Robinson moved from his native Texas to serve as interim president of the Lankenau Medical Center just outside Philadelphia. He had moved several times in his career and wasn’t looking to stay at the hospital, part of the Main Line Health system.

“I thought, OK, this will just be a nice interim assignment,” Robinson said. “We’ll get a new permanent person, and I’ll move on.”

As the search for a permanent leader continued several months later, more than 20 of the medical center’s leading physicians “showed up at my door with a letter asking me to stay,” Robinson said.

“That doesn't happen to a hospital administrator very often, if ever,” he said. “Normally when they show up at the door, it’s for the opposite reason.”

“That caused me to rethink it.”

Along with the appeal to stay, Robinson said, “I became enamored with Lankenau and Main Line Health and the community.”

Robinson stuck around. He has served as president of the medical center for 12 years. Now, he’s planning to retire, although he will serve until a new president is named.

He spoke with Chief Healthcare Executive about his career, the challenges he faced and lessons he wanted to share for other healthcare leaders. Robinson talked about taking care of staff, the need to constantly adapt and the value of humility. (The story continues after the video.)

‘A beloved figure’

Jack Lynch, president and CEO of Main Line Health, said Robinson’s legacy is impressive.

"His leadership and commitment to Main Line Health are unparalleled, and he leaves Lankenau positioned to continue providing the highest level of care for years to come due to his recruitment of countless world-renowned physicians,” Robinson said in a statement.

“He is a beloved figure here, not just because of his qualities as an executive but because he genuinely cares about his team, the community and making sure our patients receive the best care."

Robinson cited the development of the Lankenau Heart Institute in 2013 as a key accomplishment. “It was a half-a-billion dollar expansion of the campus and allowed us a bunch of additional capacity to grow the heart program,” he said.

He also pointed to the creation of the Delema G. Deaver Wellness Farm, which has produced more than 13,000 pounds of produce for patients in underserved communities since its opening. The medical center also uses the farm as a tool for health education for students in the Philadelphia area.

“That’s a pretty neat project that really has gotten national and international recognition,” he said. “A lot of people are starting to realize food is medicine.”

Battling COVID-19

While Robinson has relished his time at Lankenau, he said leading in the COVID-19 pandemic has been very difficult.

Unlike other disasters such as a hurricane that wreaks havoc but ends at some point, Robinson said healthcare organizations have dealt with constant uncertainty. Hospitals struggled with a lack of personal protective equipment, testing supplies and staff.

“I’ve been doing this for 42 years. The last two have been the most difficult and challenging of my entire career,” he said.

Since 2020, it’s been one challenge after another.

“I never thought I’d have to worry about, Do I have enough PPE for my employees to keep them safe? Or do I have enough staff to take care of our patients?”

“We made some very tough decisions along the way about scaling back elective procedures to make sure we preserved our resources to take care of people with COVID,” Robinson said. “All of that has been really tough.”

Like most health systems, Lankenau had to pivot and develop new solutions. Robinson said Lankenau devised processes to use electronic medical record systems more effectively and to create dashboards to track trends.

“We have gotten much more adept at pivoting to new, external challenges. I think we’ve been able to make much quicker decisions and respond quicker,” Robinson said.

“We’ve gotten much more effective as operators during the last couple of years because we had to,” he said.

Lankenau also saw an influx of patients due to the closure of other nearby hospitals. Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia closed in September 2019, just months before the pandemic. In recent months, Tower Health recently closed two hospitals in the Philadelphia suburbs: Brandywine Hospital and Jennersville Hospital.

“We are so full,” Robinson said.

Lessons from the pandemic

Robinson said he’s become increasingly focused on the well-being of staff during the pandemic.

“We’re all impacted by this,” Robinson said. “We’re all people. We aren’t used to seeing hundreds and thousands of people die. We need to make sure we’re taking care of ourselves while we’re taking care of others.”

While he said there has always been a recognition of the value of staff wellness, Robinson said, “I think that’s become a bigger focus for us going forward as we move out of the pandemic. We still need to make sure we’re doing that.”

Lankenau has tried to stress to staff the importance of letting leaders know if they are struggling to cope. “Let us know so we can help you,” he said.

“You might be a nurse for your whole career on a certain floor and never see a patient die,” Robinson said. “Then if you were redeployed to the COVID floor, you saw that every day. That takes a toll on you. We just need to make sure that we’re paying attention and providing the right care for our team.”

The pandemic has also illuminated yet again the impact of the social determinants of health. The medical center cares for an underserved population in west Philadelphia.

Given its patient population, Robinson is cognizant of the impact of the social determinants of health. “You really saw it up close and personal in the pandemic,” he said.

Advice for leaders

With more than four decades of experience in healthcare, Robinson has seen many changes. Good leaders need to embrace change.

“It’s never going to stay the same,” he said. “It's so dynamic. Every year I’ve been in it, it’s gotten more dynamic than the year before.”

Robinson stressed the importance of being a lifelong learner, because the pace of change is only going to accelerate.

“As a leader it really puts the pressure on you to be adaptable,” he said. “As things do pivot and shift, that you’re able to modify your leadership style and your understanding of the business so you can be at the top of your game.”

Leaders must recognize that every person in a healthcare organization is important to the delivery of care. He recalled beginning his career as an orderly and having to turn patients over and change bandages and bedpans.

“I’ve tried to never forget that and how important that role is,” he said. “That role is just as important as mine.”

“Don’t get too full of yourself,” he said, adding, “It’s a team sport.”

Even with the challenges of the past two years with the pandemic, Robinson said he loves the healthcare industry.

“It’s a great business,” he said. “You can go home every day and know you made a difference.”