Dr. Charles DeShazer, Sr. Vice President at Highmark Health Plan: The best part of leadership is the broad impact that you can have

As a child, Dr. Charles DeShazer suffered from frequent sore throats with a fever, which required many trips to the family physician. Every time he would head into the office, he knew he would be given a painful shot of penicillin. His creative 7-year-old brain reasoned that if he became a doctor, he would never have to get shots, but rather, he’d been giving them. As he grew older, he discovered a keen interest in biology, and that same physician, Dr. Feinhandler, served as an inspiration and mentor on his path to becoming a doctor

After working as a physician attendee for four years in the late-80s, he pursued a different track working as a medical director, administrator and advisor for various companies, including Kaiser Permanente, Humana, BayCare Health System, and more. Since 2016, he’s been instrumental at Highmark Health Plan, where he’s now a senior vice president and chief medical officer. Here, he spoke with The Ladders are the future of medicine and technology, finding the right balance between work and life, and more:


How has the field of medicine changed over the past five years?

“The field has dramatically changed over the past five years due to Information Technology (IT). Many converging trends are accelerating the use of IT in the field of medicine. The financial incentives that the government has paid providers to implement Electronic Health Records (EHRs) have increased adoption dramatically over the past decade. We have gone from low teens to more than 95 percent of hospitals now using an EHR. This has created the foundation for the digitalization of clinical data.  

Also, the growth and increasing sophistication of the smartphone and mobile computing has enabled clinical data to become more accessible. Physicians and patients can now access and share clinical data 24/7 at their fingertips. This development has helped Telemedicine to advance and mature as a capability. Finally, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are enabling the ability to rapidly analyze tons of clinical data and draw powerful conclusions and predictions. These predictive models support and enhance clinical decision-making and allow some clinical practice elements to be automated.”


What excites you the most in your current role?

“What is exciting about my current role is being a part of an organization that is committed to change, and being a leader in healthcare. It is recognized that some of the flaws in our healthcare system are based on our Fee-For-Service (FFS) payment mechanism. The government health agencies and many organizations are moving towards a different payment mechanism called value-based reimbursement that is based on the quality and improved outcomes delivered to patients.  

Highmark as a payer, is fully committed to this model and partnering with providers to help deliver on this promise. This aim involves a significant change in many aspects of our business. It will also require innovation and cultural change to achieve and to be a leader in this emerging environment. This strategy is challenging but very exciting.”


What’s the most challenging part of being a leader/manager? What’s the best part?

“The most challenging part of being a leader is the degree of multitasking necessary. New issues and challenges are coming at you every day, and you still have to maintain stable operations, strategic execution and keep tabs on the competitive environment. You have to have an effective time management system and be comfortable with delegating effectively. Delegating can be tough when you are used to doing everything yourself, which is typically how you achieved a leadership role.  

The best part of leadership is the broad impact that you can have. For Highmark, successful and effective strategies will impact millions of members. In the healthcare arena, that means, in some cases changing the direction of someone’s life. This is what was satisfying as a practicing physician, and it is satisfying as a physician executive because of the much significant scale of potential impact.”


What are some values in a doctor that a professional can apply to his/her career?

“The prime motivation for physicians is to do the best they can for their patients. This is the prime derivative, and everything revolves around this aim because the stakes are so high. The stakes are not always life and death, but the physicians’ actions, decisions and recommendations can dramatically impact a patient’s life. This level of customer focus would benefit any business and professional. Ultimately the paying customers are the lifeblood of any commercial endeavor. An obsession with serving the customer is, therefore, critical.”


What project at your company are you the proudest of? What did it teach you?

“Two years ago, in the throes of the opioid crisis, Highmark ‘declared war’ on opioid misuse. We put a systematic three-pronged strategy in place to treat pain more effectively without opioids, to ensure opioids were properly prescribed when need and ensure that those with Opioid Use Disorder had access to the most appropriate and evidence-based treatments.  

We also worked closely as a health plan with our Allegheny Health Network partner in Western Pennsylvania. We were able to have a dramatic impact on reducing opioid prescribing and overdose deaths. I gained a greater appreciation for the challenge and importance of working with and learning alignment with diverse stakeholders. Massive initiatives are doable if you have a broad group of aligned stakeholders. We were able to move the needle reasonably quickly as a result.”


How do you feel about the current climate in America right now in regards to race? Is it changing your work culture?

“We may have reached a tipping point as it relates to race. The video of the George Floyd murder has touched a nerve in everyone as a human being. It has sparked protests around the world and has put the conversation about racism front and center. This is despite the fact that we are in the middle of a pandemic, so I believe the passion and commitment are real. It has not changed the Highmark culture because we were already focused on these issues. However, it has deepened the resolve and focus on continuing to drive change.