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Cheryl L. Phillips, MD

Senior Vice President, LeadingAge

“I was drawn to geriatrics because I wanted to care for a specific group of people—frail older people—but I also wanted to be in a place where I could blend that work with administrative and leadership roles. I knew there was not only a huge need for good clinical services for older people, but also an obvious need for physicians to set the quality agenda and become leaders in the field.”

You could say that Cheryl Phillips, MD, a past president of the American Geriatrics Society, got her start in geriatrics in elementary school.

While she was growing up in California in the early 1970s, her mother worked at a local nursing home. So after school, she and her brother headed to the nursing home for "day care," recalls Dr. Phillips, who is now Chief Medical Officer for On Lok, a nationally renowned program that provides all-inclusive healthcare and chronic care services for older adults in the San Francisco area.

"I grew up never thinking the nursing home was a fearful place, and as a child I developed some really wonderful relationships with residents who I still remember by name," she says. "Even then, though, I was aware that many of the residents didn't see a doctor often enough, and that their quality of life wasn't as good as it could be."

Her early experiences at the nursing home figured prominently in her decision to pursue a career in geriatrics, says Dr. Phillips, who has been a member of the AGS Board of Directors since 2003, served as Secretary and later, as President of the Society. She was AGS' Primary Health Care Policy Fellow at the Department of Health and Human Services. She was previously president of the American Medical Directors Association and has served on numerous national boards and advisory groups for senior and chronic care. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has appointed her to the California Commission on Aging, among other panels. She has testified before Congress on elder healthcare.

From the start, both the clinical and leadership opportunities that geriatrics affords made the field appealing, Dr. Phillips says. After graduating from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, she earned her MD at Loma Linda University School of Medicine. After completing her internship and residency at the University of California at Davis she enrolled in Davis' geriatric fellowship program.

"I was drawn to geriatrics because I wanted to care for a specific group of people—frail older people," she explains. "But I also wanted to be in a place where I could blend that work with administrative and leadership roles. I knew there was not only a huge need for good clinical services for older people, but also an obvious need for physicians to set the quality agenda and become leaders in the field."

After finishing her fellowship in 1989, Dr. Phillips joined Sutter Health, a large, integrated Northern California healthcare system that includes 27 hospitals and more than 3,000 physicians. Her first job was caring for older patients in an office and nursing home practice. Over the course of her 18 years with Sutter, she took on increasing—and increasingly complex—administrative responsibilities but still managed to see patients, albeit fewer as time went on. Twelve years after joining Sutter she became Medical Director for the multi-specialty Sutter Medical Group in Sacramento, which then included more than 200 physicians, NPs and PAs. Her next post was as Clinical Director of Chronic Case and Senior Services at the regional level. She was later named Medical Director for Chronic Disease Management, and finally, Chief Medical Office for Sutter Health Partners.

"The training and interdisciplinary experience we get in geriatrics really enable us to step into leadership roles," Dr. Phillips says.

While climbing the ladder at Sutter, she learned about systems of care, quality improvement, risk management, and other elements of the business of healthcare, and honed her leadership skills. And she innovated. She developed a risk screening and care coordination program for high risk older adults and those with advanced chronic diseases. As the geriatric education coordinator for the UC Davis-affiliated Family Practice residency program at Sutter, she developed a functional assessment teaching clinic, a nursing home continuity residency practice, and a geriatric didactic curriculum.

Despite her leadership roles in the health care system at Sutter, she felt she was moved farther and farther away from senior care and geriatrics. So when On Lok approached Dr. Phillips in 2007, offering her a newly created position as Chief Medical Officer, she jumped at it.

"I was privileged to have the opportunities I did with Sutter Health. It was a wonderful learning laboratory in health systems, managed care and physician leadership, but On Lok provided a way to focus on geriatrics again, and to move into what I believed then and believe now is one of the premier models of geriatric care for frail elders," says Dr. Phillips, whose husband, James Lett, MD, also a geriatrician and AGS member, is now the chief medical officer for chronic and long-term care in the California Prison Health System.

In the early 1970s, On Lok pioneered the Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly, widely known as PACE, that has served as a model, nationwide, for the care of frail and chronically ill older adults. PACE programs offer comprehensive care, with the goal of enabling older adults to continue living in the community. As Chief Medical Officer at On Lok, Dr. Phillips provides medical leadership and is responsible for all medical affairs and clinical functions of both employed and contract medical providers. She is also playing a key role in determining where the program goes from here.

"Part of the reason I was asked to come to On Lok was to help answer questions like, "What is the next innovation? Where does the PACE model go from here? What should it look like in 20 years? How do we meet the needs of the next generation of seniors? How do we adapt to changes in payment and other policies? "

Healthcare is likely to change dramatically over the next decade, she notes. Health care reform legislation offers AGS an opportunity to play a leading role in bringing about broad, much needed changes in elder healthcare, she says. AGS and its members have the clinical knowledge, training and expertise; the experience with coalition building and public policy advocacy; and the leadership skills needed to play that role, Dr. Phillips says. The Society is also well positioned to mobilize seniors and the 50-and 60-somethings she calls "emerging seniors," a group that could, by organizing and demanding better elder care, play an essential part in making it a reality.

"AGS is uniquely positioned because we represent that committed group of healthcare professionals who are actually doing the care," she says.

It's imperative that AGS seize the opportunity to advance its mission -- ensuring quality care for all older adults -- while Washington works to redesign healthcare. But this doesn't mean the Society will neglect its other historic priorities, Dr. Phillips is quick to add.

"Does this opportunity mean we give up on AGS' research agenda? Absolutely not," she says emphatically. "We have to continue to push for new knowledge and understanding and push to train the next generation of healthcare professionals to serve seniors. We're also doing these things very well, and will continue to do so."

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