Pharmacy Practice

Conversations with Pharmacists in the C-Suite: Mike Sanborn

Jodie Tillman
Jodie Tillman Writer/Content Strategist Published: February 15, 2024
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ASHP is speaking with members of the PICS advisory panel as part of a series of podcasts and stories about their professional journeys. This story focuses on Mike Sanborn, chief growth officer at Baylor Scott & White Health, the largest not-for-profit health system in Texas.

Mike Sanborn was a year out of pharmacy school, working in cardiovascular medicine at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, Texas, when his manager quit. A department leader asked Sanborn to step up into the position.

Initially, Sanborn had reservations. But he ended up taking the management job — and loving it. After a year, he asked the leadership team: “What do I need to do if I want to move up?”

Sanborn returned to his alma mater of University of Kansas and earned an MS in pharmacy administration. He later worked as director of pharmacy at NCH Healthcare System in Naples, Florida, then as a vice president with McKesson before landing in 2003 at Baylor Scott & White Health, where he serves as chief growth officer.

What follows is an edited interview with Sanborn, who is a co-chairman of ASHP’s Pharmacy in C-Suites (PICS) advisory panel.

How’d you go from a health system to industry?
In Naples, I served as an interim director of different departments. I led our supply chain department and got connected with McKesson. They approached me and said, “We’re about to launch this new service around pharmacy and robotics; would you be interested in being a vice president and leading the effort?”

The only bad thing about that job was that it was 100% travel. But it was one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve had because we mostly went into distressed pharmacies and helped them improve. We even had a pilot project in Canada where we transformed and modernized the hospitals with automation and state-of-the-art pharmacy services. It was so much fun.

Did you have any reservations when you took that job?
A lot of pharmacists saw that as going to the dark side so I had reservations about whether that would affect my career. I loved hospital pharmacy, and I didn’t want to be too far away from that. On the other hand, in this job my sole responsibility was going into health systems. At one point, we had over 400 accounts.

When I had an opportunity to go to Baylor, it gave me an opportunity to return to my roots. I had responsibilities at multiple hospitals, which was new and exciting to me.

You started out as chief pharmacy officer at Baylor before moving into other executive positions. What was that trajectory like?
After we had several years of success in pharmacy, I was approached by one of our senior vice presidents, who said “We’ve got a lot of these same challenges in all our service lines. Would you be willing to take our biggest service line, cardiovascular services, and manage that and do a lot of the same things you’ve done with pharmacy?” To me, that was a huge leap career wise. He was asking me to leave pharmacy all together. I told him no. But three weeks later he approached me again and said “Mike, we really need you to do this. What’s it going to take to make it work?”

I did a lot of soul searching. I knew the people I worked with were all going to be top notch. Ultimately, I decided to take on cardiovascular services for the system. It opened a lot of doors for me.

My next job after that was as the CEO of one of our smaller 250-bed hospitals. Since then, I’ve taken on larger and larger responsibilities within the organization, most recently managing a region of hospitals that included three hospitals, and several ambulatory centers. In January (2023), I was approached to serve as chief growth officer for the system. A lot of that was based on growth and projects I had championed as a regional CEO.

Why are pharmacists good candidates for these system-wide executive positions?
I have been saying now for at least a decade I think pharmacy executives are some of the best people to run hospitals because of a few things. First, the clinical background we have imparts an automatic credibility with physicians, therapists, and nurses. That’s something a classical administrator doesn’t bring to the table.

Also, as a pharmacy executive you’re managing a large department that has lots of different types of employees, both professional and clerical. You get very comfortable with all the HR issues that can present themselves at hospitals. So that’s another big box you can check.

Last, is the complexity of a pharmacy budget, both on the supply chain side as well as everything from formulary management, clinical decision making, and antibiotic stewardship. The challenges we have managing the pharmacy budget are transferable to managing the complex budget of a hospital.

What’s surprised you as you moved into these system level jobs?
There were a lot of blind spots. For example, physician contracting and regulatory aspects of physician employment — they were not on my radar. I think you’ve got to be open to the fact that there are going to be some areas where you have to go very deep in a very short period of time. You have to be continuously committed to that investment in learning and developing yourself.

To hear more from Mike Sanborn, listen to this podcast he recorded, along with Montez Carter and Ruth Cassidy, in conversation with ASHP's David Chen.

Posted February 15, 2024

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