In Richard Breon’s first job in health care administration, he worked in a hospital unit that cared for patients who had cataract surgery.

“They would come to the hospital for eight days,” he said. “They’d lie in bed with sandbags on each side of their necks so their heads wouldn’t move.”

What a difference four decades make.

“Now, you can almost drive through and get it done in your car,” he said, joking about the eye surgery typically done on an outpatient basis.

Medical breakthroughs are just part of the picture as Breon looks back on the changing landscape of health care he has witnessed in the past 45 years.

As president and chief executive officer of Spectrum Health since 2000, he has led the way as the health system dramatically expanded the medical services available in West Michigan and honed a personalized approach to care.

Breon, 67, will step down Aug. 31, 2018, retiring after 18 years of leadership at Spectrum Health.

“I love this job,” he said. “I’m just proud of the people who work here. I’m proud we are able to employ 26,000 people in good jobs that really make this community and its economy vibrant.

“I think it goes without question that we are the most significant contributor to making this a healthier community.”

But he feels ready to leave, ready to turn over the responsibilities to his successor, Tina Freese Decker.

“It’s a tremendous responsibility,” he said. “At a certain point in time, it’s up to others to assume that leadership role.”

The move to Grand Rapids

As a CEO, Breon sees his role as determining the direction health care is headed and how Spectrum Health will get there.

“That’s visioning,” he said. “It’s trying to set out some direction for the organization.”

His vision—for health care in general and Spectrum Health in particular—has its roots in his early days growing up in Storm Lake, Iowa, with eight older brothers and sisters.

“Being the youngest of nine, I always had a lot of people telling me what to do,” he said.

But even as a kid, he felt expected to contribute, to take leadership and make decisions.

“Making decisions never was hard for me,” he said. “A lot of people have trouble in senior leadership roles because they feel uncomfortable making decisions. They may have to have more information or they do not feel comfortable with a certain element of risk. That never bothered me.

“You’re human. You’re going to make mistakes. I’ve made plenty of mistakes. I learned from them, but I never dwelled on them.”

After graduating from Iowa State University in 1973, he married Peg in 1974 and they moved to Peoria, Illinois. With only one car, they took jobs at the same hospital, Peg as a radiology technician and Breon in an entry-level management position.

After a couple of years and some promotions, he decided to make his career in health care administration. He received his master’s degree in hospital and health administration from the University of Iowa in 1980.

Breon held management and leadership positions at hospitals in Texas and Iowa.

He was the CEO of St. Mary’s Hospital and Medical Center in Evansville, Indiana, when he was offered the job to lead Spectrum Health in 2000. The health system, created in 1997 by the merger of Butterworth Health Corporation and Blodgett Memorial Medical Center, was still in its infancy. It had 7,500 employees.

We have had a series of talented people who make this place work. I’ve been incredibly impressed by that everywhere throughout the organization.

Rick Breon
President & CEO of Spectrum Health

At 49, Breon hadn’t sought the job or planned to move again. But he appreciated the Midwestern values and work ethic he found in West Michigan, which reminded him of his home in Iowa.

“This organization had tremendous potential,” he said. “That’s why I left a good organization and came here.”

Eighteen years later, Breon leads an integrated health system that encompasses 12 hospitals, 180 ambulatory service sites, and 3,600 physicians and advanced practice providers, including nearly 2,000 members of the Spectrum Health Medical Group. Its health plan, Priority Health, has more than 996,000 members statewide.

And with 26,000 employees, Spectrum Health is the largest employer in the region.

Asked if that tremendous growth was in the plan from the beginning, Breon thought for a moment.

“Did I envision it being exactly like this? I’m not sure anybody can say that,” he said. “But I can say I knew it had tremendous potential for growth. Did I envision us having a strong medical group, a good group of hospitals and a strong health plan? I would say, ‘Yes.’”

Spectrum Health has invested more than $1 billion in downtown Grand Rapids, creating structures that tower over the area known as the Medical Mile. They include the Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center, the Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion and Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

But the heart of Spectrum Health is not its buildings.

“It’s really the people inside, it’s the services you offer, it’s the way you go about doing the right thing,” Breon said.

Expansion in service lines such as cancer, cardiovascular services, neurosciences, orthopedics and continuing care has made it possible for people to get world-class care close to home.

In leading an organization as large as a city, the challenge is to move everyone in the same direction. For that, Breon has relied on his leadership team and the contributions of employees.

“I’ve always had trust in people,” he said. “If you have talented people, it will work. And we have had a series of talented people who make this place work. I’ve been incredibly impressed by that everywhere throughout the organization.”

With the growth has come national recognition. U.S. News and World Reports’ Best Hospitals list has consistently ranked Spectrum Health in a number of specialties since 2008. Truven Health Analytics has named it a Top 15 Health System six times since 2010.

The health system has earned recognition for its work in improving the health of the community, including the 2016 Foster G. McGaw Prize for Excellence in Community Service and the American Hospital Association’s NOVA Award.

That recognition was part of the vision, as well.

In 2010, Spectrum Health adopted as its vision the plan to be the national leader for health by 2020.

“That was an audacious goal,” Breon acknowledged. “It’s more about a journey to excellence. I just don’t think you ever aspire to be mediocre. If you do, it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Setting bold goals is not arrogant, he said. “It’s being true to yourself.

“We are not the best at everything. But our goal is to benchmark against the very best. We are constantly pursuing to be the very best. When I see people here talking about excellence and setting the bar high, that’s success.”

Next challenges

The challenges facing health care in the next decade include the growth of personalized medicine, wherein an individual’s genetic makeup guides decisions about treatment plans.

“I think that’s an advancement that is going to be remarkable,” he said. “It’s going to mean a better experience, better care and less costly (care).”

While precision medicine already is used to treat some diseases, Breon foresees a time when it will be part of every physician practice, informing everything from wellness screenings to medication choices.

“It will be ubiquitous in the physician practices,” he said. “It will be just as common as stethoscopes.”

Demand for more consumer-centric health care will also drive change. Services such as MyChart and the Spectrum Health app already meet that need, but he predicts more developments to come.

“People want access now, and they don’t want to wait,” he said. “Even though there’s still a great role for that personalized touch, people are going to interact (with health care providers) in different ways. I think organizations that can adapt and make that part of their health care offerings are the ones that are going to be successful.”

He has a lot of confidence in Freese Decker, one of the many health care leaders he has mentored over the years, and her ability to lead Spectrum Health.

“I think Spectrum Health is in great hands,” he said.

Family time

In retirement, Breon and his wife plan to stay in West Michigan.

“I’m sure I will be a user of health care as I get older,” he said. “Where else better to do that than here?”

They plan to spend their winters, however, in the warmth and sunshine of Florida.

“I hope never to let a snowflake hit me in the shoulder,” he said.

In general, Breon foresees an active, but less hectic life in retirement. He plans to travel and enjoy more time with his family, including his 4-year-old granddaughter.

“I’ve already been told by my wife that I am not the CEO of the household,” he said with a smile. “I’ll be busy, but it will be a different kind of busy. It won’t be the stressful kind of busy where I feel responsibility for 26,000 people and $6 billion worth of business.

“I am very much looking forward to it.”