Alameda Health System (AHS) knows it can’t successfully transform its care delivery system without having leaders who are dedicated, diverse and disruptive…in walks Luis Fonseca. He currently serves as Chief Operating Officer for AHS and says his upbringing, life experience and education all paved the path to being an executive at the East Bay’s leading public health system.
“In my career, I’ve had the privilege to work for public hospitals, non-profit hospitals, for-profit hospitals and district hospitals. In every one, I have learned so much, but as I reflect back, it is clear that serving our most vulnerable populations in the safety-net setting more closely resonates with my personal values,” said Fonseca. “I make it my purpose to work in a place where I will have the greatest impact on the health of our community. It is not just about a title or a job. I am very driven by the ability to care for individuals who need it the most. Helping vulnerable populations is very meaningful to me.”
As a result of a hurricane where they lost everything, his family moved from Puerto Rico to El Paso, Texas when he was ten-years-old. Having to start all over, his parents’ strong work ethic and sacrifices made for him and his siblings laid a foundation for who he is today. “I come from very humble beginnings. We didn’t have much and largely depended on social programs to cover essential monthly expenses such as food,” said Fonseca. “I have a great amount of respect for those hardworking families that are just trying to make ends meet. They shouldn’t have to choose between paying for utilities or food or health insurance.”
Fonseca is responsible for operations of the entire health system. But when he has participated in career day at schools, including those attended by his children, he explains his role as the Vice Principal. “I’m essentially responsible for moving things forward and eliminating obstacles so everyone can do their job more efficiently.”
Right after high school he joined the Navy and it was during this time he decided to pursue a career in engineering. He began his studies while overseas in the military doing coursework by correspondence.
He said his kids chuckle when they hear this because they don’t know a world without internet. Once he completed his term of active duty, Fonseca returned to the states where he continued his studies while working full time.
Healthcare was never in the cards until the engineering firm he worked for took on a big project at a hospital where he was required to spend the vast majority of his time in the facility. “I quickly became fascinated with all the activities of healthcare and that hospital. After completing the project, I was asked to stay on and eventually was hired on as their Director of Engineering.”
Fonseca is a Fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives and a board member of the National Association of Latino Healthcare Executives. Only about 5% of healthcare providers identify as Hispanic or Latino and in California alone, 30% of the population fall into that demographic. Some studies show the number of Hispanic executives in healthcare are less than 2%.
“These numbers are really unfortunate. Staff demographics have a direct impact on delivery of care. Having the ability to communicate in the same language, coming from a similar background, understanding different cultures and approaching them with humility is extremely important,” said Fonseca. “My colleagues and I who are a part of these diversity groups are aware of these statistics and are trying to change this trend. One way to do this is by exposing the next generation to work in the healthcare field. Most people only think of doctors or nurses, which are definitely crucial parts of a hospital system, however, part of my role as a mentor is to educate these young people about different possibilities.”
Fonseca says he has witnessed firsthand the importance of exposure. His son, who attends college, volunteered each summer at his hospital and now wants to be a firefighter/emergency medical technician. “I’m very proud of my son and my daughters. I know my son’s passion for being able to provide care for others came from the exposure received. This is very similar to what we are trying to accomplish with our HealthPATH program, the youth who participate are from the community and they represent the patient population we serve, where currently 47% of them identify as Hispanic. I am glad we are able to engage and introduce them to healthcare and I hope we will see them leading healthcare systems in the future.”
“One of the great things about this country is that we are a huge melting pot. We benefit from the many different cultures and backgrounds. It is critical that everyone understands the value diversity brings to the community. When I think about my heritage, and my parents having to start a new life in a strange place going above and beyond for our family; I feel a deep sense of pride, it keeps me grounded, it’s who I am.”
He says the next big thing for AHS is going to be epic, pun intended. “This new electronic health record (EHR) system is going to be as disruptive as it can get, but it will ultimately make operations more seamless and I’m very excited about it. Right now, our facilities have no way of communicating with each other. Think about the gross over-utilization of services that increase costs and waste staff resources because we can’t tell what type of treatment or lab work a patient has already received,” said Fonseca. “In our future state we will be able to see our patient’s total history which will ultimately help us frame their care. This new EHR will streamline all our processes. Operationally everything will change, the transparency of the data will be very helpful. We will be able to be more focused and deliberate on how we make improvements to our operations. It’s going to be great!”
“I am a firm believer in the continuous betterment of AHS. In an effort to eliminate waste and inefficiency I revamped one of our divisions and created the System Transformation and Reengineering (STAR) team. This team is responsible for evaluating our workflows and processes by using LEAN methodology. The data gleaned from the STAR team’s efforts will help us with standardization and performance improvement systemwide.”
When Fonseca thinks about the legacy he wants to leave behind at AHS, he wants to be known for being instrumental in system transformation and as someone who was truly devoted to executing the AHS mission of caring, healing, teaching and serving all.