Season 3, Episode 3 - Phillip Levy, M.D., M.P.H.

Host Sara Kacin speaks with academic leaders at Wayne State University to learn how they have developed their careers while empowering themselves and others.

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Episode notes

Phillip Levy, M.D., M.P.H., is an Edward S. Thomas Endowed Professor at Wayne State University School of Medicine, where he currently serves as assistant vice president for translational sciences and clinical research innovation and associate chair for research in the Department of Emergency Medicine. A cardiovascular expert, Levy centers his research on heart failure and hypertension. Earlier this year, Levy added a new role as chief innovation officer of the Wayne State University Physician Group, where he's led mobile COVID-19 testing efforts in Detroit and Dearborn. In this episode of EmpowerED to Lead, we'll learn how Levy is changing lives — both as a medical leader, and as a dedicated mentor.

Phil Levy headshot

About Phillip Levy, M.D., M.P.H.

Phillip Levy, M.D., M.P.H., is an Edward S. Thomas Endowed Professor at Wayne State University School of Medicine, where he currently serves as assistant vice president for translational sciences and clinical research innovation and associate chair for research in the Department of Emergency Medicine. He is also the chief innovation officer of the Wayne State University Physician Group. Since joining Wayne State in 2002, Levy has overseen nearly 100 funded studies from entities such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Emergency Medicine Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health.

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Transcript

Narrator:

Welcome to EmpowerED to Lead, a Wayne State University podcast for academic leaders committed to empowering their community to succeed, hosted by Dr. Sara E. Kacin, director of Wayne State's Office for Teaching and Learning, and assistant provost for faculty development and success.

This podcast explores the personal journeys of academic leaders, both current and emerging, to learn more about how they've developed their careers. Dr. Kacin speaks with faculty and staff about their work and how they've empowered themselves and others along the way. By doing this, we hope to empower listeners like you as you continue on your leadership path.

Sara Kacin, Ph.D.:

Phillip Levy, M.D., M.P.H, is the Edward S. Thomas Endowed Professor at Wayne State University, where he currently serves as assistant vice president for translational sciences and clinical research innovation, and associate chair for research in the Department of Emergency Medicine. In addition, he is also the chief innovation officer for the Wayne State University Physician Group. It is my honor to welcome Dr. Levy to the podcast.

Dr. Phillip Levy:

It's my honor to be here with you. Thank you so much for asking me to come join you.

Sara Kacin, Ph.D.:

So, let's just dig right in: You wear so many hats as a leader in the medical field. What has been the most rewarding part of your leadership journey?

Dr. Phillip Levy:

Well, that's why I have no hair — because I'm constantly taking on and off all the different hats that I have! The most rewarding part of my leadership journey is knowing that I helped play a part in the success of others as they build up their careers. It's interesting, as you get to the point of leadership, the efforts that you put in to build your career over time, they're very self-focused early on, right? It's about, How do I get grants? How do I write papers? How do I get promoted? How do I become a tenured professor? And once you get to that point, you realize that you can't do any of this alone. You never think you can do it alone, as you're building up your career. But once you get there, you start to ask the questions about what's next, and where do I go from here?

And the most important thing you can do from that point is start to realize how you pay it forward, how you pay it back, how you bring others up. And that's the most important thing, to be part of a rich and robust academic environment at a university like Wayne State, where everyone can rise by the efforts that you've put forth. And so, my gratification as a leader is in really putting together infrastructure, programs, plans, mentorship teams, whatever it might be that not only fosters the success of the individuals that we're working with, but the success of the university on the whole.

And really the backbone of that drive is that we are an urban-serving public land grant university that sits in the middle of Detroit, which is a city with communities that have long been underserved and have suffered from socioeconomic disadvantage. And our role at Wayne State centers on what we can and should be doing for the population whom we live with in the city of Detroit. And so a lot of that is, how do you take then all of these people that you're building, and the programs that you're developing, and ensure at the end of the day that the population that you live with and work with in the city are also benefiting from these efforts?

Sara Kacin, Ph.D.:

Definitely. So, thinking about the Detroit community, earlier this year you added a new role as chief innovation officer of the Wayne State University Physician Group. And this is where you've overseen the drive-thru COVID-19 testing in Detroit and Dearborn. What really inspired you or made you want to lead that effort?

Dr. Phillip Levy:

The physician group hadn't really had a presence in prevention health and population health — an interest, but not necessarily a presence. And by pulling together, we saw an opportunity to grow and develop. And it's been a great partnership. But where this sort of came from theoretical to actual was when COVID hit. I started in this role in January and had a lot of conversations with everybody about the vision, the aspiration, about where we want to go. Where we want to go is a vision to take the data from Phoenix and use that as a way to understand what communities need specific targeting for outreach. And then incorporate a confluence of those social variables so that you can really understand at a community level, not all of Detroit has the same issues. We have the same problem, which is uncontrolled blood pressure and early onset heart disease. But not every individual has the same issues, and not every community has the same factors that contribute to disproportionate risk.

So what we really want to get to is an idea of precision population health. What are the confluence of variables in a community? What's the DNA of that community? Not the people living in the community, but the DNA of the community itself that will help point us where interventions may be needed. As we're designing all of this, our plan was to use our mapping work that we're doing with Phoenix and this confluence of factors to target outreach. Then, boom, COVID hits. And we're in an existential moment. I, as an ER doc, in my typical role, would spend most of my time treating critically ill patients in the emergency department. Now, with this new role, we were able to reimagine a little bit what could be done. And we started to look at the landscape and said, "OK. Well, we have revision for population health. That's one thing."

And the very first thing we wanted to be able to do was use that vision to test everybody and anybody in the community. And the population health component of that was, if we could identify people early on who are infected — regardless of symptoms, job descriptions, anything — and separate those from those who are not infected, we can do a good job of reducing the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, in the very beginning, there were insufficient test supplies, insufficient supply chain. The whole thing wasn't, and unfortunately still remains today — a big debacle. I can't even imagine how August 3, we still had people waiting seven to 10 days for test results from their COVID test. That aside, we wanted to do this initial thing within that vein of population health, but the state had limitations. The CDC had limitations they were putting forth on testing because of the reduced capacity or limited capacity to do this.

So they had stipulations and created priority criteria for who could get tested. Being a health care worker, being involved in health care worker organizations, and starting to see not just the impact that COVID was having on the population, but specifically the impact that COVID was having on my colleagues and others, first responders and others who are part of the safety net, the fabric of our community that ensures that everyone is kept safe and protected. So we pivoted quickly from this idea that we were going to test everybody and do population health, to what was possible, and focused on health care workers and first responders. And the first case in Michigan was reported on March 10. On March 11 or 12, I think it was, we got together: Dr. Lanier, who's the vice president of research, myself, Dr. Schweitzer, who's the new dean and VP of health affairs. Before he took the job, we were still having conversations around all of this. And President Wilson, to get an idea about where we might want to go forward.

We decided that focusing on testing was the thing, and decided that we were going to build up an infrastructure for this. Again, we wanted population health, but decided to focus on health care workers and first responders, taking what was possible and moving forward. And March 13, we started having conversations. By March 20, we did our first screening. Within a week, we built up infrastructure at 400 Mack in Detroit, which is Wayne State University Physician Group headquarters. And in Dearborn at ACCESS, which is an Arab community health partner of ours, and at ACCESS headquarters. Between March 20 and April 10, we tested about 2,900 health care workers and first responders. And we were seeing incredibly high rates of infection early on, anywhere from 30-40% of the people who were tested on a given day. And our volume, we were seeing about 250-300 people a day coming through.

We had a great cadre of volunteers: Everyone who wanted to be part of something. But soon, we realized that, yes, we're helping those who are critical to help. Health care workers, if they get sick, they can't care for people. If they get sick and go to work, they're going to spread it to many, many people. The same type of thing with first responders as well. And we wanted to do two things: We wanted to keep those who were sick from getting others sick. And we wanted to keep those who were not sick from having to be home in 14-day quarantines when they can be back at work and doing the jobs that they love. So, that was the first emphasis that we did. And really that was a testament to leadership across the board at the university.

President Wilson came on early day one and said, "What do you need?" We said, "We need money." So he committed a million dollars to the effort. And that helped us put up infrastructure that we needed in order to do the testing. And it helped us purchase some equipment that we needed in order to help our community through the hospital-based components of testing. But, a key portion of all of this was the ability to see where all the gaps in the chain of this process would occur. And that's where the team really came together. We walked through a lot of the work plan and the workflow to understand what the gaps were, and where we needed to innovate to move forward. And again, within seven days, thanks to the team, we were able to put something up like this.

Sara Kacin, Ph.D.:

This is truly remarkable. And one thing that you made me think about is that you often like to take that road less traveled when you're doing things, and you're constantly dealing with constraints and things getting in your way. And I'm wondering, I think some of our listeners would really appreciate to know some of the leadership qualities that you incorporate to help engage and keep the momentum going with whatever team it is that you're working on. Now, we don't have testing supplies; maybe if you could share some of those values and strategies that you use to really keep the team going, I think that would be helpful.

Dr. Phillip Levy:

Yeah. We did encounter a tremendous amount of challenges throughout the process of building up the testing program — just like everybody encounters in a lot of different ways.

Sara Kacin, Ph.D.:

Sure.

Dr. Phillip Levy:

Early on, it was hard to find the viral medium to develop test kits. It was hard to do a lot of different components. And I think my leadership style often stems from people recognizing the work ethic I have and the work I'm willing to put into something, and never asking anybody to do anything that I have not done myself or would not be willing to do myself. Early on when we were having our challenges with viral transport medium and everything, I'm running back and forth between sites to split what we have, and to make new supplies, and to figure things out. And it becomes very easy for someone to say, "Wait, Phil. Why don't you stay here and do this, and I'll go do this?"

And so the leadership style, in some ways, comes from that recognition that you are not just a leader, but you're also a team player. And I think that's one important thing. And I think the other piece is that in order to lead, people have to want to follow you. And while there's that one aspect of it, when you're asking other people to step outside of their comfort zone and do things, they have to do it because there's a reason behind it, and making sure people understand the motivation for the work that we're doing. This isn't about how Phil Levy gets credit for developing a COVID initiative; it's about how we at any cost and by any means necessary are going to deliver the services to our population that needs it, and never losing sight of the fact that the driving force and motivation behind this is the community we serve, not the individuals who are doing the service itself.

So I think those are really important points. And then you can never say enough in leadership about having connectivity and connections. And the way you develop those connections are, first of all, by realizing you're never above anybody, or for that matter, below anybody, right? It doesn't matter where you are in your leadership hierarchy, your voice needs to be heard if you're saying something that's going to help achieve the goals of the mission. And it's that Toyota mentality, right? Any person can stop the line. And so that's one of the things I always instill with people, but more importantly, make sure they know that while we talk about direction at the top, they have full autonomy for the execution of the project. And micromanagement is something I just find a little bit abhorrent. I don't want to criticize anybody else's style, but in my world, I find it really challenging because if you confine people to a specific way of doing something, then that's all they know. They can't innovate. They can't think beyond that, and they quickly become stymied in their ability to think outside the box.

And so I always want people to think, no matter how differently it might seem, about what's possible, and my answer is always going to be, "Sure, let's try it." Because that's the way we're going to move things forward. And I would say it's been pretty successful to date. Like I said in the very beginning, I cherish what I can do to bring other people up, but nothing makes me happier than knowing that I have this incredible team of people who are always willing to go the extra length because our values and vision are aligned.

Sara Kacin, Ph.D.:

So, as you've advanced in your career, you still make it a point to mentor medical students, resident physicians and junior faculty members. Why is being a mentor so important to you?

Dr. Phillip Levy:

Well, there's a couple of aspects, and so — it may sound crazy, but at this point I'm probably mentoring upwards of 100 people in different levels.

Sara Kacin, Ph.D.:

Definitely.

Dr. Phillip Levy:

And some mentorship is really hands-on, and some mentorship is just, "Hey, you're doing great. Keep it going." But for me, part of this is establishing that network of connectivity, right? I want to make sure that not only do I have connections to these folks, but every one of these people I'm mentoring knows they have a person like me who is willing to drop what they're doing to help ensure their success. And the reason to do that, again, is not because it brings anything to me — it brings me personal gratification. I'll be quite honest, I enjoy it.

Sara Kacin, Ph.D.:

Of course.

Dr. Phillip Levy:

But as I spent yesterday and five hours of writing letters of recommendations, not always personal enjoyment, but one of those things you just got to do with the job, right? But that said, I want everyone I mentor to mentor another 10, 15, 20, 30 people, because that's how you build success — that's how you tell people that they matter. The key with your mentor-mentee relationship is that the person that matters most in that diad is the mentee. And they have to be able to articulate what they need, and they have to recognize when they're not getting it, and they have to recognize mentors who are willing to do the work to ensure that they get the components of success that are needed. I went through my career early on and had some fantastic mentors, and some not so fantastic mentors, and you learn from people you want to emulate, both what to do and what not to do. But at the end of the day, the thing that I always found most endearing in a mentor is responsiveness.

And the first time you delete someone's email when they reach out to you, it's easy for you to do as the mentor. It's very difficult for them to handle as the mentee or potential mentee, and where do they go from there? Is the next step for them to say, "Well, this isn't worth it, and I'm done." Or is the next step for them to keep knocking on doors until they find the right person? And I've always been of the mindset that I'd rather people don't have to knock on many doors; I can open many more doors than a lot of other people can. And if I can help do that for somebody, it's really important.

And, again, at the end of the day, it's really about for me at Wayne State, building up the base of competent and dedicated researchers, and faculty members, and students and everybody who sees the value of the mission, and I think one of the reasons that people come to me to mentor them is because of the vision that I put forth which is, we're in this for the population, we're in this for the people, we want to make sure that the work we're doing is always going to chase back to that benefit. And that is part of my mentoring message as well, is always be thinking about that: Think about yourself second, think about the mission first.

Sara Kacin, Ph.D.:

You're going to have some people listening on here today, Dr. Levy, that might want to jump in, whatever place that they are in their career — because it can be at any point. Do you have any advice to them for just go for it? Any type of advice to help them to move forward to accomplish whatever their goals might be, whatever they're thinking that might be able to help community, help campus, help a colleague?

Dr. Phillip Levy:

I think the hardest thing for mentees is the fear of failure and the aspiration of success, and I know that those seem like, How could they be in the same sentence? But the fear of failure prevents many people from ever taking their first step, and it stings when you get your grant rejections, especially with the comments that reviewers put in there. And being on both sides of it: I write those comments, I receive those comments. You have to be mindful about how you give someone feedback, but don't break them down. But I think a lot of people really get — they don't like rejection. Who likes rejection? Rejection is part of success. The only way you're going to get better is by knowing where you're deficient and addressing those deficiencies and building up. So I really encourage people who are starting this out to never fear failure because failure makes you stronger — I know that's very cliché to say. But you need failure for success. You can't have one without the other. It's yin and yang, right? And so don't fear failure, but don't look at the success of others as your aspiration because it's not how you measure up to someone else that defines success, it's how true you are to your goals and how well you can achieve them that defines success.

I think one of the things that often happens with mentees is that they get a taste of success, and then everybody wants to layer on and work with that individual because they've shown that they can achieve success. That's happened in my case, and one of the keys I would also advise mentees is, again, making sure you stay true to yourself — it's very easy to get distracted by shiny objects: this publication, that publication. If it's not germane to the work you're trying to do, don't get distracted for the easy win, if it's not going to help you get where you want to go.

Perhaps a final point on that is, think of the end in mind and work backwards. Really understand what it is you're going to want to do. What defines success for you? Success for you should not be having an extensive CV with many pages — that's not success. It's what's on those pages that really matters, and if everything on those pages matters to you, then you're successful regardless of what some reviewer says. Don't stop when you get failure. Just keep pushing forward. Barriers are things to overcome, not things to turn you away, and so those are probably the words of wisdom I would impart to the listeners.

Sara Kacin, Ph.D.:

Sure. Dr. Levy, you said so many helpful comments throughout our discussion today. To name a few: You can't do this alone. Don't feel failure. And kind of the overall message is, there might be hard times with constraints, but you can do it — you can find another way — among many other really, really helpful things. It's been an honor. I can see that you're truly changing lives in our community within the teams that you work with, and with the networks that you're building for those that you're mentoring and then encouraging them to build people that they can have as their mentors one day. It's just been truly an honor. And I think this'll be very helpful to our Wayne State community for those that are looking to be emerging leaders and those who are already leaders that might share some of the same sentiments that you talked about today. So we thank you so much, Dr. Levy, for joining us today.

Where can our listeners follow you online and stay connected with your work?

Dr. Phillip Levy:

Well, thank you for asking that. I have made a conscious decision not to have an online presence — not because I don't like people, but I don't necessarily care what people had for dinner or where they walk their dogs, so I don't get involved in those things. But that said, I am pathologically responsive to email and strive on the mission of getting my inbox less than 10 every night, so if people email me, I will respond — often, very quickly. So they can email me at plevy@med.wayne.edu.

Sara Kacin, Ph.D.:

Thank you again, Dr. Levy, for joining us today. Be sure to join us next time on EmpowerED to Lead.

Narrator:

We're glad to have you listening to EmpowerED to Lead. To learn more about our podcast, please follow us on Twitter @WSUFacSuccess.