Facing down financial shortfalls, Harvard Medical Faculty Physicians' Alexa Kimball launches major practice into telehealth

Alexa B. Kimball, M.D.

Harvard Medical Faculty Physicians at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center CEO, Physician Performance LLC president, Harvard Medical School professor of dermatology


Age: 51

Education: Alexa Kimball holds a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University, a doctor of medicine from Yale University School of Medicine and a master’s in public health from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

About her: Alexa B. Kimball describes managing COVID as the hardest thing she’s ever done.

As CEO of Harvard Medical Faculty Physicians, Alexa Kimball helps 2,000 physicians and providers deliver the best possible patient care. The position’s demands range from helping handle challenges like those presented by COVID to the everyday issues that all healthcare providers face, such as keeping up to date with the latest scientific and medical advances, tackling reimbursement challenges, managing busy practices and providing care to vulnerable populations, to name a few.

But as the pandemic unfolded, her organization faced a $70 million funding gap over five months. Over a very short period of time in March, she needed to preserve the organization's balance sheet and launch its first telehealth program, all while her group cared for hundreds of ill patients hospitalized with COVID-19 at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Part of this project included working to smooth out barriers that have traditionally existed for telehealth, such as insurance reimbursement, patient and provider buy-in and efficient use of technology, the effects of which were only magnified by the pandemic. Under her leadership, the group transformed these challenges into opportunities, removing barriers and innovating rapidly to help physicians rapidly absorb the new normal of telehealth so they could continue caring for thousands of patients remotely.

Today, more than 500 physicians in her organization use telehealth routinely, logging in to take part in about 1,300 patient visits each day.

Kimball maintains a large mentor circle, including medical students, physicians in training, junior faculty and her business team.

She also serves as co-chair for the BIDMC experience task force, an institutional culture transformation project aimed at improving diversity and inclusion in the organization.

She has been a trailblazer throughout her career, as the first female physician to become a full professor of dermatology in the Harvard system, the first female medical director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Physicans’ Organization and the first female CEO of the Harvard Medical Faculty Physicians. Meanwhile, she continues to see patients and manage a research portfolio that tests new therapies for patients with significant inflammatory skin diseases.

First job: “My first jobs were teaching tennis to six-year-olds, and interning at the National Technology Transfer Center in Washington, D.C., where we assisted federal agencies in commercializing research results. While both jobs provided me with life lessons (patience is a virtue and practice makes perfect!) the tech transfer internship sparked my lifelong passion for science and medicine, and set me on the path that has taken me where I am today.”

Proudest accomplishment: “Ten years ago I realized that I had insights I could bring to help patients with a severely under recognized, surprisingly common and devastating disease called Hidradenitis Suppurativa that affects primarily young women and disproportionately affects African-Americans. The disease causes extremely painful skin boils and abscesses. Leading the research that led to the first approval of a medication to treat this disease and jump starting a huge research effort that followed has been a true privilege. Given that this disease may affect as many as 1 million people in the U.S., our effort has helped a lot of patients—and we will help a lot more with what we learn next. What I learn from doing this kind of research also helps me understand how to improve the tools and experiences for physicians and keeps me in touch directly with the patients, who are of course at the center of all of our efforts.”

Problem she’s most passionate about trying to solve: “I am truly passionate about supporting and serving physicians. Through our innovation, compassionate and expert service to individual patients, beneficial impacts on the health and well-being of our communities and the public health, we are agents for the most positive kinds of change. Specifically, I am dedicated to addressing the challenge of physician burnout, not just in its immediate effects, but in its insidious long-term consequences for individual physician’s careers. In 2018, I worked with my senior leadership team to develop multiple approaches to address physician burnout, and am proud that a follow-up AMA survey found a 20% improvement in the problem, which the AMA noted was a rate of improvement they had never seen from one year to the next.”

Book she recommends to other healthcare leaders: “Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. It’s not a book directly about health care but it’s an incredible and riveting story about structural inequality, persistence and passion—all of which are relevant to everything we do as leaders in healthcare.”

Advice she would give to her younger self: “Follow your instincts about interesting problems and how to solve them. My most successful projects have been ones where I had an unusual insight and was able to use it to solve a problem or answer a question.”

What she’d do with her career if it wasn’t this: “Economics or Epidemiology. I am drawn to quantitative measurement from an academic point of view, but I am really fascinated by how quantitative analyses can be used in practical application, how they explain human behavior and how they lead us to make things better.”

In light of the national conversation that is happening right now, advice she would offer to healthcare leaders seeking to make a real impact on systemic problems caused by racism: “First, we need to acknowledge that we are likely to make mistakes along the way, even with the best of intentions. And that we need to use those mistakes to learn and accelerate our intensity in this effort. It will take daily effort in our personal actions as leaders, an active commitment to education and structural reorganization, and national advocacy. It is also essential to lead by example in taking deliberate steps on an individual level. For example, last year I mentored an incredibly accomplished and talented young minority physician who came from an underserved background. As she looked for her next position. I realized that she needed to dramatically improve her interviewing skills, as no one had taught her how to interview as effectively as she needed.  I pulled in a team to help her present herself and her accomplishments effectively — and we will now all benefit from her subsequent success.”