UCare’s new chief medical officer wants to advance equity


One way to describe Dr. Tenbit Emiru is “well-educated”. An M.D. Emiru holds a Ph.D. and an MBA. He was recently appointed executive vice president and chief physician of UCare. This independent, non-profit health plan company serves 640,000 people in Minnesota and Western Wisconsin.

Emiru, a Minnesota native who immigrated from Ethiopia as a teenager with her family, was raised in a home with high expectations. She said that her siblings and herself were required to pursue higher education beyond college. She was able to see the benefits of this attitude: All five of her younger siblings are “very accomplished in their own right,” she stated.

Emiru’s commitment to equity was the driving force behind her previous roles as a critical care neurologist at Hennepin Healthcare, and as medical director of Neurocritical Care at Regions Hospital. Emiru felt at home at UCare because of the high-needs patients it serves and its commitment to addressing the serious equity gaps in the region’s health care system.

Emiru stated that she will be getting the groundwork in her new role within a few days. She said that she believes in not arriving prepared to do certain tasks. “My first priority will be to understand the work that is already being done.”

MinnPost: MinnPost is proud to have you as a respected and established physician. Why did you choose to become an administrator?

Dr. Tenbit Emiru – My values regarding health equity align with UCare’s mission and focus in health equity. No matter where you come, I believe everyone should have access to good health and quality health care. UCare is committed to ensuring that we achieve health equity. This was what attracted me to them.

MP: Was it difficult for you to move from private practice to this new position?

TE: I believe that my philosophy for doing anything is to remain curious, have an open mind, learn as much as possible, and be flexible.

It’s a huge transition. My previous position as the department chair of neurology at Hennepin Healthcare had me in an administrative role, but I also spent large amounts of my time in a clinic role. The new role is an executive one. It is quite different. It doesn’t have an official clinical role. However, I will continue to see patients and remain clinically active in a smaller portion of my work. Although this is not part my UCare employment I will continue to do my clinical work on weekends.

MP: Sounds like you’ll be very busy.

TE: It won’t be every weekend. It happens once every four to five weeks. I am not ready to quit clinical medicine. It helps me to be successful in my current job by having that connection with families and patients from a different perspective.

I prefer to simplify things and prioritize the important. This is what has gotten me to where I am today in my career. This belief will see me through the next chapter.

MP: What were your first influences that drew to medicine?

TE: My mother is a retired nurse. As a youngster, she had a great influence on my interest in medicine. My uncle is also a doctor, but no other family member is.

Ethiopia is where I was born. My mom was always able to tell me what she did at the clinic. She spoke about the lack of health care in developing countries like Ethiopia. That is why I was always interested in becoming a doctor from an early age. As a teenager, I witnessed firsthand the importance and value of good care. I was able to see it from the perspective the immigrants, which further strengthened my desire for a career as a doctor.

MP: You are a neurologist and have a Ph.D. Your intense study of the brain from both an emotional and physical standpoint is what attracted you to this field.

TE: I’m drawn to things I don’t understand. As a University of Minnesota undergraduate, I majored as a psychology major. My studies were approached from the perspective of “Wow.” It’s not clear to me. It would be great to learn more. I did some research for my professors and developed my own project. They said that this is Ph.D.-level research. I had always thought I would go to medical school so it was almost an accident that I earned a Ph.D. After completing my Ph.D. I stopped and went back to medical school.

It’s the same with neurology. The neurology rotation was my favorite during medical school. It was something I didn’t fully understand and something I wanted to learn more about. It was not a difficult decision. It’s a challenge to study the brain.

MP: It’s interesting that you have a Ph.D. as well as a M.D. You also have an MBA. Why did you choose to get so many degrees?

TE: Education is very important to our family. My parents encouraged us all to be educated and go as far as possible in our education.

My previous job at Hennepin Healthcare was my first. I was a doctor when I began. I enjoyed building programs and providing clinical services. This is why I was elected department chair. However, I never had any formal business training. To be able sit down at the table and have discussions that go beyond one department or area, I decided to pursue an MBA.

MP: You will now be responsible for leading UCare’s equity- and inclusion initiatives. Are there any specific goals that you would like to achieve in this area?

TE: I am brand new to UCare. I’m not looking to be in this position for specific goals. UCare is on a mission to be an anti-racist organisation. My first goal is listening, to meet people, and to learn from what has been done. Externally, I plan to listen, to get out in the community and identify the needs and gaps, as well as the work done by UCare. We can then sit down together to create a long-term plan and decide how we want it to be done.

As a CMO, I am able to take the initiative in collaboration with our partners. Diversity equity and inclusion will be a priority for our organization. We are making progress in making our workforce more like the ones we support. All the work that has been completed or is in progress gets more visibility through my role.

MP: What are the most pressing issues in health care?

TE: I have taken care of patients from all walks and from marginalized communities in the Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota. There is much more that can be done. As both a doctor and immigrant, I have seen firsthand the effects of inequity in health care. This is why I find this work so important. We’ve seen in recent years how the pandemic has exacerbated the risk faced by marginalized communities and those who are underserved. This is an issue that I must address.

This is what attracted me to UCare. I was able to tackle this issue from a wider platform. It is clear that the organization recognizes the importance of health equity. Already, work is underway to ensure that health equity is at the forefront of everything we do. It is an exciting time to be a part of it.

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