On Dec. 1, we welcomed Robert Higgins, MD, MSHA, as the new Brigham president and the executive vice president of Mass General Brigham.

Higgins joins us with a breadth of experience at world-renowned academic medical centers. Most recently, he was the surgeon in chief, William Stewart Halsted professor of surgery and the director of the Department of Surgery at Johns Hopkins University.

Last week, Higgins joined the Brigham community for an All Staff Forum, where he reflected on his background, answered questions from staff and described his overarching visions for the future.

Getting to Know Dr. Higgins

Prior to joining us here at the Brigham, you were at Johns Hopkins University, and before Hopkins, you were at the Ohio State University Medical Center. Can you talk more about your career to date?

RH: I was recruited by Johns Hopkins from the Ohio State University to lead the Department of Surgery. I’m a cardiothoracic surgeon by training and a transplant specialist by focus, so it was a rare opportunity to lead the entire department of surgery, including all specialties.

We were very productive during the time I was there. We hired 61 new faculty, and I’m proud to say we hired twenty-two women and nine underrepresented minorities in various leadership and early career roles. We also focused on our academic mission, increasing research initiatives by about one hundred percent with NIH-funded investigators and helping build a clinically-integrated network of services in transplantation and cardiovascular care across six hospitals.

We also did a lot of work in diversity, equity and inclusion. As many may be aware, I was the first person of color to hold a leadership role at Hopkins in one hundred and thirty years. During my time there, we recruited faculty and staff across the school of medicine to make it a more culturally diverse and inclusive environment, and I’m proud of the partnerships and initiatives we developed.

You also served as a volunteer in the Army Reserve Medical Corps for 13 years. Can you reflect on your time in the reserves?

RH: My dad was a physician in the Navy. Unfortunately, he was killed in a car accident when I was young, and I knew he had work to do that he could not finish. Following in my father’s footsteps motivated me to pursue a career in medicine. But I was also inspired by his service to our country. My mom taught us that as young people, we had a responsibility to serve the communities that we reside in. One way to give back to my community was to serve in the military, and that led me to join the Army Reserve Medical Corps.

What attracted you to the Brigham and this role specifically?

RH: As a young person, I was aware of the extraordinary legacy of clinical care, research and innovation, particularly in cardiovascular and transplant medicine here at the Brigham. It’s a world-class institution. So, when I found out I had been nominated for this opportunity, I was floored. I wasn’t sure I’d be a candidate for such an extraordinary job. But in considering the opportunity, my experiences led me to believe that I could succeed here and that there were so many wonderful people with outstanding commitments to this program. I’m a bridgebuilder, a collaborator and someone who works well with other people, and I think those are some of the qualities that led me to get this job.

I’m honored to come to Boston and lead the Brigham and Mass General Brigham communities. I still have to pinch myself. As avid sports fans, my kids say, ‘Dad, once again, you’ve outkicked your coverage!’

Addressing COVID-19

Cheryl R. Clark, MD, ScD: During the pandemic, our research community stepped up to support clinical colleagues working on the front lines. What is your vision for how our clinical and research communities can continue to work together to face and surmount other significant challenges

RH: It’s clear that the Brigham and all of its affiliate organizations have stepped up in remarkable ways with drug trials and clinical care. They’ve undoubtedly transformed the way we address this pandemic. Going forward, we’ll have to continue innovating and collaborating to tackle this next set of challenges. Our science and research programs will help us identify what challenges to expect next and develop the future generation of vaccines or public health initiatives. The research community serves as global leaders in our ongoing battle with COVID-19, and I’m excited to support that.

Christine Murphy PMHCNS-BC, CARN-AP, Program Director, Psychiatric Nursing Resource Service: What is your perspective on employee wellness and resilience? The pandemic and the current high patient volume we are experiencing have been so difficult for our care teams. How can we do more to take care of each other? 

RH: The first and most important part is recognizing how much our workforce has sacrificed and how appreciative we are of their efforts. While words are nice, actions speak louder than words, so we’re going to try to do everything we can to recognize all of our employees committed to providing excellent patient care.

Ultimately, we need to be empathetic and compassionate to one another, just as we treat our patients. These are challenging times, and we’re going to try some creative strategies to increase morale and let people know that they are appreciated.

Building a Better Future: Higgins’ Goals for the Brigham Community

In some of your past roles, you’ve been vocal about the importance of bringing more diversity to healthcare leadership roles. How do you intend to continue your work in this space?

RH: While working in cardiovascular medicine and transplantation, it became clear to me that not only did we have healthcare disparities, but that we faced a lack of leadership development among people of color. So, I took it upon myself to improve the pipeline by teaching young students at the college, medical school, residency and faculty levels to help them promote their careers through sponsorship and mentorship.

I plan to promote the same opportunities at the Brigham. Not only will we try to eliminate healthcare disparities, but we’ll also work to create a more diverse, inclusive and multicultural workforce.

This work isn’t just for minorities by minorities. It’s for all of us to champion and create a more inclusive environment, so everyone contributes to that success. In academic settings, it’s about enhancing and enriching the pipeline. I think diversity makes us better in terms of the patient care we provide and the ideas we generate. If we diversify our experiences and approach to solving problems, we’ll be better healthcare providers.

As you look to the future, what is your vision for our organization?

RH: I’m hopeful that despite the challenges we face—the pandemic, workforce challenges, access and equity issues—that we will continue to lead in academic medicine. If we focus on our mission of providing great patient care, innovation and research, and creating a more diverse and multicultural workforce, we can continue to do great things. I recognize our staff is fatigued due to the current circumstances, but I’m hopeful we can maintain our view of what we’re here for: outstanding academic leadership.

I’m confident we won’t lose sight of the forest through the trees and can still lead the healthcare enterprise around the world. I’m excited about that future, knowing the journey will be difficult and that it’s a challenge at this moment in time. But, as my mom would say, pressure makes diamonds. The Brigham is a jewel in the crown of the American healthcare system.