Health system CEO turnover rose in 2022 as more executives feel the strain from burnout

CEO turnover among the country’s leading health systems returned to pre-pandemic levels in 2022 though more of the industry’s executives now say they are feeling the strain of burnout, according to a pair of new reports.

The past year saw 24 new appointees take up the chief executive mantle at one of the nation’s 150 largest (by total operating revenue) health systems, according to a research brief from the Health Management Academy (HMA). This was up from 2020’s nine new appointments and 2021’s 12 and roughly on par with 2019’s 25.

Nearly 3 in 5 of the new CEOs were internal hires with an average of 14 years of service at their organization, the group found.

“[Leading health systems] continue to value the institutional knowledge offered by internal candidates for the CEO role, often using board seats as opportunities to bring on external or out-of-industry expertise to guide system strategy,” the HMA wrote in its research brief.

However, only one of those 24 new CEO appointments was female, “a significant drop” from the 18% female CEO turnover rate of 2021 and the pre-pandemic rate of 19%, the group wrote.

The lone female appointee was Allina Health’s Lisa Shannon, who stepped into the role in January 2022 and was preceded by another woman, Penny Wheeler, M.D.

Two-thirds of the past year’s new CEOs came from a president or chief operating officer role. The remaining third came in from another CEO role.

Among the 24 new CEOs, 96% have a graduate degree, 45% have an MBA and 13% have an M.D. This reflects a 27% year-over-year increase in appointments with an MBA and a 26% decline in those with medical degrees.

“Facing tight margins and persistent workforce pressures, the increase in new CEOs with MBA backgrounds reflects [leading health systems’] desire to appoint leaders with well-honed strategic-thinking and decision-making skills,” the group wrote. “It marks a departure from the pandemic-era uptick in physician leaders.”

The new class of CEOs enters their roles as feelings of stress and burnout run rampant throughout the healthcare industry, both among front-line staff and—according to a recent survey from executive search and leadership advisory firm WittKieffer—those steering the ship.

Conducted online during the summer of 2022, the poll collected responses from 233 healthcare executives, including 63 CEOs.

Seventy-four percent of those respondents told the firm they had experienced burnout over the prior six months, up from 60% back in 2018. Ninety-three percent said that burnout is negatively impacting their organization, up from 79% in 2018.

Respondents who indicated they were personally feeling burnout more often said that stress was taking an organizationwide toll (98% versus 76%). Further, a more significant percentage of those executives gave negative answers to a series of follow-up questions asking whether their organizations' COVID-19 actions were reasonable and appropriate, whether they were productive at work most days, whether they were confident in their ability to overcome challenges at work, whether they are hopeful about the future of healthcare leadership and whether they were considering leaving their position or the healthcare industry due to burnout.

Written comments from respondents quoted in the report pointed to pandemic-era pressures ranging from negative margins and supply chain disruptions to workforce shortages and physical violence aimed at healthcare workers as contributors to stress and burnout.

“There is a feeling of helplessness when you have no levers left to pull,” a chief executive quoted in the report said in reference to labor and supply costs. “Working seven days a week impacts my personal life, and there is no end in sight to the staffing/diversion nightmare. I’m seriously planning to retire early.”