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Reflections On Late Partners CEO Jim Mongan

This article is more than 8 years old.

James J. Mongan, former president of Massachusetts General Hospital and of Partners Healthcare, died last month of cancer at age 69. Today, mourners gathered at a service at Harvard to share their memories. Among those who spoke was Jack Connors, chairman of the Partners board, who kindly supplied his remarks at WBUR's Martha Bebinger's request.

A few excerpts follow. Readers are welcome to add thoughts in the comments below.

Jim and I became partners with a small “p” and what a privilege that was. The trust and mutual respect were very special.

When Jim became CEO of Partners in January of ’03, he had two major goals: Increasing the number of people with access to health insurance and improving the quality of care within the Partners system. He succeeded at both.

Jim was an inspirational leader and folks loved working for and with him. His leadership, his quiet example and his passion for excellence literally changed the culture of how physicians in the Partners system practice medicine.

He had no interest in making Partners bigger. His focus – always – was to make us better. He felt strongly that if we concentrated on better in every aspect of care design and delivery, bigger would follow and once again he was right.

At its birth in 1994, Partners was a $2B enterprise. And this year under the leadership of Jim’s successor, Dr. Gary Gottlieb, Partners is closing in on $9B in revenues and has become what The New York Times referred to as “the model marriage of academic medicine.”

As most of you undoubtedly know, Jim and Jeanie spent many years in Washington, DC. He worked on Capital Hill for the Senate Finance Committee and later became Deputy Secretary of Health in the Carter White House.

But Jim never thought of himself as a person who worked for Senators or Presidents. His devotion was to the public. He loved his calling. Public Service was in his DNA. His dad had been the City Clerk in the great City of San Francisco.

He loved politics and he enjoyed the characters and the stories. One such story was a comment by Senator Russell Long who announced after listening to too many hours of testimony and I quote, “It seems to me that everything has been said, but not everyone has had a chance to say it.”

Jim Mongan understood politics. He understood market forces. He understood modern medicine and he definitely understood health policy. But what he most understood was the importance of the doctor/patient relationship. Our beautiful, quiet unassuming friend focused his life and ours on improving what mattered most to the patient – the quality of the doctor’s care.

It was no accident that Modern Healthcare ranked Jim as the most influential physician in the U.S.

The great unspoken lesson in Jim’s life was that you didn’t have to act important to be important. I remember Jim and I being at a dinner with some movers and shakers. And when the host chose the wine, he selected a French white, specifically a Puligny Montrachet, and went on about its nose, its bouquet and how this particular year was a brave young vintage.

Jim was unmoved. When his white wine was poured, he immediately added 3-4 ice cubes and enjoyed his dinner. I don’t think the host ever recovered.

Bob Dylan once wrote, “You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.” Jim always knew which way the wind was blowing. He understood the chaos in the health care system in America and as he wrote in his book, the secret to managing chaos is organization.

His entire career in hospital administration was driven by the notion of making things better and safer for every patient. Jim didn’t long for the good old days. He understood that the future belongs to those who prepare for it and no one prepared us better for the future than our beloved friend, Jim Mongan.

This program aired on June 1, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.

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