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One-on-One with Aric Coffman of DaVita Medical Group

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Dr. Aric Coffman was once ready to trade in his surgical scrubs and start laying carpet.

The then-medical resident was so prepared to give it all up, he even applied for a job at Lowe’s. But the home improvement giant turned him down.

Coffman wound up taking a research year, hoping he would get some guidance from God about what to do with his life.

And he says he did.

It came during a drive through a remote part of New Mexico when Coffman and his wife happened upon the scene of a car accident. The sign-seeking surgeon boarded the ambulance and performed an emergency cricothyrotomy to obtain an airway, thus helping save the victim’s life.

“I asked for a sign, and that was my sign that I wasn’t supposed to leave medicine,” Coffman says from the Downtown Albuquerque headquarters of DaVita Medical Group New Mexico, the medical group (formerly known as ABQ Health Partners) that he now leads as president.

Although he might have had doubts along the way, medicine is probably in his blood. His father recently retired as a family practice physician; his mother was a pediatrics nurse.

Raised primarily in Oklahoma, Coffman earned his medical degree at University of Oklahoma, like his father before him. He completed his residency at University of New Mexico, which segued into a job with Lovelace and a career in Albuquerque.

Management duties at DaVita – which boasts an estimated 800 employees at locations throughout the metro area – occupy most of his time today, though he still remains active as a general surgeon.

Q: Describe yourself as a teenager.

A: Nerdy and hard-working. I was a reluctant nerd, but I was definitely a nerd. I carried a lot of jobs when I was a teenager. I actually started (officially) working when I was 11 – cleaning the parking lots at Sonic. And then I moved my way up to carhop and then I was on fountain and then I cooked.

Q: What were your interests when you were growing up?

A: I loved science. I loved soccer. And I loved my family. Growing up, I either wanted to be a scientist or a doctor, and the Jarvic 7 heart … was one of my big inspirations for being in health care. It was the first heart transplant recipient who lived for any significant amount of time. The name of the heart was the Jarvic 7. Jarvic was the guy who actually created the (artificial) heart, Barney Clark was the recipient of the heart. And it was a pretty remarkable feat in physiology.

Q: Were you initially intrigued by medicine because both your parents were in health care?

A: I remember growing up in it, and being around them and their passion for taking care of others. Most of that was really around my mom. She was really instrumental in my formative years, especially teaching me about what kind of doctor to be based on her experience with clinicians over the years. … I just remember her dedication to it and getting up with her really early in the mornings. She used to get up about 4. I used to get up with her and talk with her while she was getting ready to go to work. … I learned a lot about teams, listening to her (talk) about how it could function when people worked well together in health care – and some of the sad stories or rough stories when people didn’t work well together. When I applied to medical school, (I applied knowing) that I wanted to make a difference in helping teams work more collaboratively to provide better care. That was part of my personal statement when I applied to medical school.

Q: What did you learn from your dad?

A: He loves his patients. He was in solo practice for his entire career and what I learned from him is there are tons of changes that happen in health care that are outside of the individual practitioner’s control, and those practitioners that embrace the true gift that it is to be able to take care of other human beings on that level tend to weather that storm with a smile.

Q: What appealed to you about going into the management side of health care?

A: One, I like challenges, and I saw that there was a huge headwind for health care in general. As I got into my (surgical) practice, initially the only administrative duty I had was I was in charge of the residents. … As time went on and things changed within the group, more people leaned on me in a leadership role to do more things. Without really intending necessarily for that to happen, it was kind of the evolution where I found myself making contributions outside of directly taking care of patients. As I learned more, I discovered there was an entire language of things I needed to understand, and that was one of the reasons why I pursued additional education to learn how to speak the language of business. I embarked upon that on my own accord and started to learn that language, and then understood a little bit more about the complexities we were facing and liked the idea of having complex problems to solve. Whether those are surgical problems or macroeconomic problems, those things appealed to me.

Q: When it comes to guiding the larger organization, how essential do you think it is you still see patients?

A: For me. right now. it’s very essential. We have a lot of changes going on; it’s important to me (that) I have the opportunity to get that direct feedback. And it gives me the opportunity to (see if) my expectations of others are reasonable. If I have an expectation that we’re going to provide excellent patient experience and I’m not providing excellent patient experience, it’s hollow. If I model by example – which is one of the things I’ve tried to do in my life – it becomes a lot more real. I’ve often told and warned people that I’ll never ask you do to something that I wouldn’t be willing to do. The warning in that is I’ll do a lot for my patient. That’s not letting anybody off the hook.

Q: How does the uncertainty over the future of health care in this country affect what you do right now?

A: I’ll take it back a little bit to what I learned from my dad, and that is if you give excellent care and you truly love your patients, the exogenous forces really don’t matter. Those things always change. You could have asked me that question several decades ago – before we had Medicare … before Medicaid existed and before we had HIPAA or before we had (anything on the) list of things that have changed. The constant in all of that is that there is always going to be the art of medicine. And that it’s our responsibility as clinicians, and me as a clinician leader, to keep that top of mind for people, and make decisions that have integrity and are based on achieving better quality care for patients. Then the exogenous things, whatever those are, have a lot less impact.

Q: What is your life like away from work?

A: Outside of work, my wife and children get the vast majority of my additional time. … They get about 98 percent of my time outside of work. Lots of activities, sports.

Q: What’s the other 2 percent?

A: I get up early every day and exercise. I found that, for me to be consistent with getting my own needs met, I need to do a couple of things on a regular basis. One is I need to exercise almost every day. So about five days a week, I do high-intensity interval training. I get up around 4:30 and do that. And then I try to meditate three to five days a week for at least 15 minutes.

Q: What is the best compliment you’ve ever received?

A: “Thanks, Dad” from my kids. I like to spend time with them, talking to them about their life situations and what’s going on at school, and (their) challenges and just trying to be thoughtful about helping them think through what’s happening, so they can learn to make their own decision.

Q: What is your biggest regret?

A: Maybe not taking enough chances. I’m pretty conservative.

Q: Does one missed opportunity stand out?

A: Not really. I’m a huge introvert. … When I was young, I wanted to be in a band in high school and I never had the courage at that time to do it.

Q: Do you have any strange quirks or superstitions?

A: I’m very superstitious. Quirks? I do a lot of math in my head. I like doing math in my head. I like memorizing digits of pi. (Rattles off list of numbers.) I like math.

Q: Do you have any guilty pleasures?

A: I like reading Flipboard (the news and social media aggregation app that serves up content based on individual user’s interests). … You can’t put it down because you’re reading all this stuff that you like. … There’s a lot of stuff on quantum physics that’s going on right now that’s, like, really cool. That stuff is pretty interesting. And then I also like ancestry.com. It’s better than Facebook because people don’t post a whole bunch of stuff because most of them are dead. You don’t have to feel guilty that someone’s going to be mad at you because you didn’t look at their post, because they’re gone. I finally sent in my DNA; I’m waiting to see what comes back.

Q: On the spectrum of guilty pleasures, those seem pretty tame.

A: (Laughs) They’re kind of time sucks, you know.

Q: How would you describe yourself in three words?

A: Resilient, courageous, connectedness.

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