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UCare’s new chief medical officer wants to advance equity

Dr. Tenbit Emiru says the role at UCare felt appealing because of the high-needs population the organization serves as well as its public commitment to addressing serious equity gaps in the region’s health care system.

Dr. Tenbit Emiru: “As a physician and a member of the immigrant community, I’ve seen the impact of health care inequity first-hand.”
Dr. Tenbit Emiru: “As a physician and a member of the immigrant community, I’ve seen the impact of health care inequity first-hand.”

Well-educated is one way to describe Dr. Tenbit Emiru. An M.D. with a Ph.D. in psychology and an MBA, Emiru was recently named executive vice president and chief medical officer of UCare, an independent, nonprofit health plan company serving some 640,000 enrollees across Minnesota and Western Wisconsin. 

Emiru, who immigrated to Minnesota from Ethiopia with her family when she was just a teen, was raised by parents with high expectations. “It was always required for all of us to get higher education beyond college,” she said of herself and her siblings. This attitude worked: Her five younger siblings, she said, “are all very accomplished in their own rights.” 

Emiru’s earlier roles as critical care neurologist at Hennepin Healthcare and medical director of neurocritical care at Regions Hospital were driven by her commitment to health equity. The role at UCare felt appealing because of the high-needs population the organization serves as well as its public commitment to addressing serious equity gaps in the region’s health care system. 

Just a few days after stepping into her new role, Emiru explained that she plans to get the lay of the land before launching into any new projects: “I’m a big believer in not coming in already prepared to accomplish certain things,” she said. “My efforts will be focused first on understanding the work that’s already underway.” 

MinnPost: You are an established and well-respected physician. What drew you to this more administrative position?

Dr. Tenbit Emiru: My own values around health equity really aligned with UCare’s mission and focus on health equity. I strongly believe that no matter who you are or where you come from, you should have the opportunity to have good health and good health care. UCare Is making sure we make strides in health equity. That was the most important reason that drew me to them. 

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MP: Was it hard for you to leave private practice for this new role?  

TE: My philosophy in doing anything, whether it is a new professional role or pursuing something I want to do personally, is: Stay curious, keep an open mind, be eager to learn and be flexible. 

It is a big transition. In my previous role as a department chair of neurology at Hennepin Healthcare, I had an administrative role but I also spent a large portion of my time in a clinical role. This new role is essentially an executive role. It is very different. It does not have an official clinical role. But I will still continue to see patients and be clinically active in a much smaller percentage of what I do. This is not part of my UCare employment, but I will do clinical work on my own time on weekends.

MP: It sounds like you’ll be really busy. 

TE: It’s not going to be every weekend. It’s one weekend every four or five weeks. I’m just not ready to give up clinical medicine. I believe it helps me be successful in my current role to have that connection with patients and families from a different perspective. 

I like to keep things simple, prioritize what matters. That’s what’s driven me up to this point in my career. I believe this will carry me through in this next chapter as well.

MP: What influences first drew you to the field of medicine? 

TE: My mom is a retired nurse. She had a lot of influence in my interest in medicine as a young child. I also have an uncle who is a physician — but no one else in my family is in medicine. 

I grew up in Ethiopia. I always knew what my mom did in the clinic. She talked about how there is a lack of adequate health care in a developing country like Ethiopia. Because of that, I always was interested in becoming a physician from a very young age. When I moved to Minnesota with my family when I was a teenager, I saw first-hand the importance of really good culturally and linguistically appropriate care. Witnessing that from the perspective of the immigrant population further strengthened my desire to become a physician.

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MP: You are a neurologist and also have a Ph.D. in psychology. What drew you to your intensive study of the brain — from an emotional and physical perspective?

TE: I am drawn in general to things that I don’t understand. When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota, I majored in psychology. I approached my studies from the perspective of, ‘Wow. I don’t understand it. It would be cool to learn more.’ I did research for some of my professors, and I developed my own project. They said, “That’s Ph.D.-level work.” Earning a Ph.D. in psychology was almost an accident because I always figured I’d go on to medical school. But I took a break from that for a while, finished my Ph.D., and then later, I went back to med school. 

The same thing with neurology. When I was in medical school, the neurology rotation was the most fascinating for me. Again it was something I really didn’t understand, something that I wanted to know more about. It wasn’t a tough decision. I enjoy the challenge of studying the brain. 

MP: I’m intrigued that on top of your Ph.D. and M.D. you also hold an MBA. What drives you to obtain so many degrees?      

TE: Education is very important in our family. My parents encouraged all of us to get educated and to go as far as we want to go in educating ourselves. 

When I started in my previous role at Hennepin Healthcare, I was trained as a physician. I loved building programs and clinical services. That is why I became a department chair. But I was never really trained in business. I thought to be able to sit at the table and really have conversations that are beyond one department or one area, it was important for me to get an MBA. 

MP: In your new role, you will be leading UCare’s equity and inclusion efforts. Do you have specific goals you will be pursuing in this area? 

TE: I’m brand new at UCare. I don’t want to start out in this position with specific goals. UCare is on a journey to become an anti-racist organization. My first goal is to really listen, to meet with people, to understand what has been done. I also plan to listen externally, to go out into the community, identify the work and the gaps that exist as well as the work that UCare has done. After that we can sit together and charter a long-term plan to figure out how we want to go about it. 

In general as a CMO I can take the lead in collaborating with our partners. I will make diversity equity and inclusion a higher priority within our own organization. We’re making headway, making sure that our own workforce mirrors the members we currently support. My role gives all this work that’s been done or is underway greater visibility. 

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MP: What do you see as some of the biggest issues facing health care today? 

TE: In my career so far, I’ve taken care of patients from all walks of life from underserved and marginalized communities within the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota. I believe that there is still a lot that can be done. As a physician and a member of the immigrant community, I’ve seen the impact of health care inequity first-hand. This is why this work is really important to me.  In recent years, we’ve seen how the pandemic exacerbated the risks faced by marginalized and underserved communities. This is something that’s essential for me to address. 

Being able to address this issue from a larger platform is one of the central things that attracted me to UCare. It’s clear the organization has recognized that health equity is important. Work is already under way to make sure that health equity is front and center in what we do. I am excited to be part of that.