This episode of the MGMA Insights podcast features the MGMA 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award Winner, Debra Wiggs, FACMPE. The Lifetime Achievement Award celebrates the success of an individual who has inspired and empowered other healthcare leaders, especially regarding medical group administration, delivery, and education.
Having begun a career in healthcare as a highschooler in the ‘70’s, Wiggs has held many titles, including nurses’ aide, practice manager and, later, MGMA board chair and interim CEO.
Editor’s note: The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: This is a well-deserved honor. Where do you see your biggest contributions to the advancement of medical group administration, delivery, and education?
A: My word that I've always used to describe what drives me to do what I do is to be a bridge, and that's been my word for most of my career is how do I bridge things. I love to make connections between people or ideas or concepts, and then I basically just stand back and watch the magic happen. So, I think that the thing I like to think has been a contribution is that ability to bring groups of people together, to look at what the circumstance or situation is, and then come up with solutions, and the ability then to help make those solutions reality.
Q: When did you begin to make that shift from the clinical side to really evolving and developing your leadership skills?
A: It was a kind of a combination of sitting in those conferences and starting to appreciate that there was much more to the role of a practice manager at that time. And what was I going to do about that for myself? I moved out of the clinical sphere and found that I really enjoyed the idea of helping people (from an administrative standpoint). …
My parents would ask me what I did, and it was really hard to describe what a practice manager was. And I came up with a phrase that 'I'm in the business of care, so physicians can be in the practice of medicine.' And that kind of helped define then, the role that I played with managing all of the business aspects of the practice, and that freed the physicians up then, to do what they were trained to do. And that's been my sort of my mantra, my entire career, is how do I enhance the business side of the practice? So the physicians aren't distracted by it, and unable to actually do the care that they are trained to do? And it's very expensive training, so why would they spend time on things that are outside their scope of knowledge frequently? So how can I do that to the best of my ability?
Q: You’ve got a unique perspective because you started working in healthcare in the ‘70s. How has healthcare changed in the timespan? How has it stayed the same?
A: If you're being really ethereal about it, the human condition is that everything changes and yet, everything stays the same. I've talked about it in my leadership presentations. One of the challenges we face today is that we live in a complex world, and a lot of what we do is very complex systems and processes. The magnitude of that hasn't changed really that much, contextually. But we tend to like to make things complicated. I think that’s one of the things that I really worked at, in my own responsibilities was, how do I make things not complicated?
I think it's probably the biggest challenge that we face today, is we continue to overlay systems processes, things that don't add value to the process. … There's a lot of moving parts, but there's a lot of things we could stop doing as well. …
(We need to ask ourselves) Is it adding value to what we're doing? I think sometimes we do a lot of, quite frankly, CYA behaviors that stop processes. And so it's challenging people that, frankly, it’s time to be brave, and be willing to step out and take action in the midst of situation or circumstances that, you know, may not be completely straightforward.
But I'll tell you, at the end of the day, there's not that much that can go wrong if you're thinking. And that's probably the biggest challenge, is people sometimes stop thinking. They want to expect, to kind of use jokingly, say, a drop down menu to answer all the questions. And they really aren't there. You've got to be able to take advantage of experience and try things and being willing to fail forward.
Q: One reason you won this award is because of your ability to not just look at the practice itself, but to expand that view into the community. You’re steeped into the state of Washington community and the Washington MGMA. Explain to us why that matters, that community viewpoint of health and healthcare.
A: It's the idea of being able to collaborate with folks, learn from one another, and, frankly, again, back to the whole (idea) of 'you're not alone.' You have a sense of being connected so that some of the things that can look pretty scary, you could call somebody up, and they can say, ‘Oh, I've done that,’ or, ‘I ran into that problem,’ or you could have a solution fairly quickly in being able to connect with folks.
Q: You’ve had a distinguished career, you’ve been a practice leader, you’ve been a leader within the MGMA community, you’ve been the board chair of MGMA, you were the interim CEO of MGMA. What’s going on in this phase of your career? What do you have going on now?
A: I like to say I retired, not from something but I retired to something. Part of my life plan had been to be in a position to be able to go out and do service work in other parts of the world, I love to travel. And so, I literally just came back from three weeks in Africa. I was in Tanzania and Kenya. ... And I was able to help provide medical care and actually did some actual clinical work under the auspices of different medical personnel. ...
So I continue to work with organizations and nonprofits around the three passions that I have, which are organizational dynamics and leadership, mentoring, and strategic planning. So I'm planning to do that for the next several years on an as needed basis. And I really enjoying doing that.
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