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Heroes of The Addiction Crisis: How Dr Karen Murphy of Geisinger Is Helping To Battle One of Our Most Serious Epidemics

Leadership is the ability to work with teams to achieve a common goal effectively. I think a great example is leadership that has been demonstrated during the pandemic. At the beginning of the pandemic, hospital leaders were required to completely pivot the health system to care for COVID patients and institute measures to mitigate the spread of COVID in our hospitals and communities. After almost 24 months, leadership now must work with teams to maintain resilience under extremely challenging circumstances. Leaders must have the capacity to not only understand priorities but also be flexible on approaches necessary to achieve goals while appreciating the evolution of a changing environment.

As a part of our series about “Heroes of The Addiction Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Murphy.

Karen Murphy, Ph.D., R.N., is executive vice president, chief innovation officer and founding director of the Steele Institute for Health Innovation at Geisinger. Throughout her career, Dr. Murphy has worked to improve and transform healthcare delivery in the public and private sectors, serving as Pennsylvania’s secretary of health and director of the State Innovation Models Initiative at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. In 2021, she was recognized as one of Modern Healthcare’s 50 Most Influential Clinical Executives.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit of your backstory?

I started my career as an ICU nurse in a community hospital in northeastern Pennsylvania and transitioned to administrative roles over the next three decades. My last position at that health system was president and CEO. I then decided to pivot to public service, leading the State Innovation Models Initiative at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The federal government invested more than $900 million to work with state governments on health innovation. Following my work at CMMI, I served in Governor Tom Wolf’s cabinet as secretary of health. I was recruited to Geisinger four years ago by then-CEO David Feinberg to assume the role of executive vice president, chief innovation officer and founding director of the Steele Institute for Health Innovation.

Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work with opioid and drug addiction?

When I began my work as Pennsylvania Secretary of Health in 2015, I was astounded at the rate of acceleration of the opioid epidemic and the overall lack of awareness of the horrific impacts on families and society. The first cabinet meeting we had with the governor was to develop a strategy to connect with services and programs that focused on treatment and prevention.

Can you explain what brought us to this place? Where did this epidemic come from?

The causes of the epidemic have been well documented. It began with the overuse of opioid prescribing as well as the illicit use of opioids as recreational drugs. The problem escalated with the shift from opioids to heroin because of accessibility and price.

Can you describe how your work is making an impact battling this epidemic?

At Geisinger we have more than 38 workstreams dedicated to battling the epidemic. We focus on prevention, treatment, and support.

Wow! Without sharing real names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your initiative?

One of the programs that we are most proud of is Free2BMom. The program was designed to support moms with substance use disorder in maintaining recovery. The program begins prenatally and follows mom and baby after birth. We have developed coalitions with community agencies to support the moms and babies with food, access to counseling and transportation. Anecdotal stories from moms in the program have demonstrated that the support of Free2Bmom has enabled them to maintain recovery.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

Launching the Free2Bmom program.

Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this problem? Can you give some examples?

The largest barrier to success in decreasing addiction is stigma. Addiction is not viewed the same way in society as cancer or heart disease. It is viewed as a human failure. Individuals feel shame and consequently don’t seek treatment. Families tend to do the same. Until we solve the stigma issue, it is going to be difficult to make strides in ending the epidemic.

If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

1. Comprehensive bipartisan strategy that includes funding for treatment and prevention.

2. A mandated evidence-based education program starting in K-12.

3. Funding that will incentivize professionals to enter the behavioral health field.

I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?

I’m very passionate about the work. The passion fuels energy, even in difficult times.

Do you have hope that one day this leading cause of death can be defeated?

I do. We have had past surges of addiction and death from drugs. While they didn’t last this long, I do believe it is possible to have an impact.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is the ability to work with teams to achieve a common goal effectively. I think a great example is leadership that has been demonstrated during the pandemic. At the beginning of the pandemic, hospital leaders were required to completely pivot the health system to care for COVID patients and institute measures to mitigate the spread of COVID in our hospitals and communities. After almost 24 months, leadership now must work with teams to maintain resilience under extremely challenging circumstances. Leaders must have the capacity to not only understand priorities but also be flexible on approaches necessary to achieve goals while appreciating the evolution of a changing environment.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou. This is my favorite quote. I actually have it hanging over my desk. Empathy towards others is essential to leadership.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: @Murphy_KMG, @GeisingerHealth

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/karen-murphy-58094638, linkedin.com/company/18369

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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