CMO Dr. Darryl Elmouchi preaches consistent experiences across all Spectrum Health divisions. Courtesy Spectrum Health
He didn’t know it at the time, but Dr. Darryl Elmouchi’s medical career began at age 14 in a public high school anatomy and physiology class.
It was one of only two schools in California whose students could dissect cadavers.
“I was fascinated by it, and I was fascinated by science,” he said.
That’s what sparked an interest in medicine that eventually led him to his current role as chief medical officer for Spectrum Health and president of the system’s medical group.
He took a detour on his way, though.
His major at the University of California Los Angeles was history with a focus on African American history. He said a class on Malcolm X was so enthralling that he took a series of classes on the subject.
During that time, he worked as an assistant at a legal recruiting firm. He noticed the firm’s employees liked their jobs and were making good money and doing good work, but he questioned whether they were really helping humanity in any way, whether their work was actually meaningful.
DR. DARRYL ELMOUCHI
“I really thought about it and really felt, personally, that wouldn't satisfy me,” Elmouchi said.
That thought steered him toward medicine, which is a subject he’d always thought about since that class in high school, he said. A couple of years before graduation, he decided to take the MCAT and try for medical school.
“I always wanted to be able to talk about something more than medicine at the coffee table, hence history, but medicine was my passion,” Elmouchi said.
During a year off after graduation, he wanted to get a taste of the medical field. He spent the time performing research in nursing homes, doing exercises with residents who had severe Alzheimer's to determine if it would improve long-term outcomes. The study found that by exercising, the patients were in the hospital less and their dementia progressed less rapidly.
That combination of helping people and working in science confirmed it — the medical field was where he belonged.
“Every part of it was just exciting, fun, interesting, gratifying — very different than my work at the legal recruiting firm,” Elmouchi said.
He moved to Ann Arbor to begin studying at the University of Michigan’s medical school. On the first day, he met his future wife.
Elmouchi expected for a while he would go into primary care. It wasn’t until a residency rotation in the cardiac ICU at the University of California San Francisco that he “fell in love with cardiology,” specifically the specialty cardiac electrophysiology.
“It was a brand-new field with amazing technology that can take someone who, prior, would either die or have to have major open-heart surgery to make them better, and with a two-hour procedure, I could cure that,” Elmouchi said.
The immediate gratification, advanced technology and complex problems were everything he loves wrapped into one subject, he said.
After graduating from medical school, it took eight years of residencies and fellowships before qualifying for his first job as an electrophysiologist. During that time, he and his wife had two children. He credits her, a pediatrician who finished training four years before he did, with supporting the family while he spent extra time in training. There were years when he was home about a quarter of the time he is now, he said.
Contrary to what Elmouchi had imagined, his family stayed in Michigan, landing in Grand Rapids in 2006. After practicing for four years, he became director of the electrophysiology lab at Spectrum, his first foray into medical management. It started as a small program and now is one of the largest in the state, he said.
During his five years in the role was when he started thinking about health care as an industry, considering how he could help not just his own patients but all his colleagues’ patients, as well. He realized if his background in medicine were paired with a background in business, he could impact a much broader population.
“So, I literally woke up one day and said, ‘I think I better get an MBA,’” Elmouchi said.
Starting in 2014, he spent two years taking remote classes from the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.
While that wasn’t originally the plan, Elmouchi said he is someone who likes to solve problems he sees in front of him. He said he had seen too many people in the health care industry identify problems but resist making changes to fix them. He wanted to be different.
“I realized that change is inevitable and really necessary and helping shape that change for the positive is much better than resisting the change, which I think was something that my younger self was pretty good at,” Elmouchi said.
“Instead of being resistant to the change, I started feeling much more not only excited about the change but increasingly responsible for helping make that change.”
So, as leadership opportunities became available at Spectrum, he went for them, believing it would best position him to help lead that change. He became head of cardiology and then CMO of Spectrum’s hospitals before landing his current role in 2017.
“I never in my wildest dreams thought I'd be doing what I'm doing today,” Elmouchi said.
He’s been practicing his specialty even in these high administration roles, though he’s finally made the decision to phase out of practicing over the next six months.
In implementing system changes, he has found it’s important to remind colleagues and staff why progressive thinking is needed in health care — because it’s best for the patients.
“I think when you're leading a group of incredibly well-educated, intelligent people, namely physicians, they need to understand ‘why’ before they hear about the ‘how,’” Elmouchi said. “I think historically in health care, the ‘how’ came before the ‘why,’ and that never really worked.”
Elmouchi realized Spectrum’s hospitals, its medical group and affiliated private practices operated fairly independently of one another. That didn’t make sense, though, if the goal is to give patients consistent experiences, so he has strived to ensure each group works together. Patients typically don’t know or care which group each of the 4,300 medical staff belongs to, as long as they get the care they expect from Spectrum, he said.
“We shouldn't care about any of these made-up divisions; instead, we should all act as one,” Elmouchi said.
What he considers possibly his most important ongoing work in his role is establishing care pathways based on evidenced best practices, making variations only when the patient needs them.
“That will improve outcomes, and that will dramatically reduce the cost of care,” Elmouchi said.
Over the past few years, he’s built the medical education program at Spectrum, growing the number of training spots and the breadth of specialties. There are 320 residents and fellows training in 28 specialties with more specialties being added every year.
“Our hope is that those folks will not only be excellent physicians, but a good number of them will stay here to take care of all of us when we get older,” Elmouchi said.
Going forward, Elmouchi said he believes Spectrum should continue focusing more on disease prevention and coordinating care within the system, striving to improve outcomes at a lower cost.
“Making sure that Grand Rapids and our communities have access to the highest caliber medicine, science, advances, which (Medical Mile) shows you we’re really committed to.”