The pandemic has changed the way many businesses operate, including at the C-Suite level. Now, having a chief medical officer (CMO) isn’t just reserved for companies in the healthcare and medical industries.
“Most of the time we think about bringing business considerations more firmly into the health domain. Increasingly, we’re seeing it go in the opposite direction as well,” said Christopher G. Myers, director of the Center for Innovative Leadership at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, who wrote a paper on the rise of the CMO for JAMA Health Forum.
The CMO role isn’t exactly new, but the pandemic accelerated the growth of the position into almost every business sector. Google, Tyson Foods, Delta, Salesforce, Constellation Brands, Royal Caribbean and Uber are a handful of major brands that have added a CMO in the last few years. “Health considerations are increasingly becoming central to every business domain, not just the ones we might traditionally think of,” Myers said.
A pandemic push
As employers became increasingly involved in supporting employee health, more of those employers added a CMO. The pandemic was an accelerator: According to analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies, CMO postings increased from 1,776 in 2019 to 2,109 in 2020.
“You now have corporate executives who were needing to have conversations about their building ventilation, whether it met particular guidelines, and all sorts of fairly sophisticated health considerations,” Myers said. “With those kinds of shifts, we might expect that [CMO roles] would expand quite rapidly.”
Some CMO roles also were created in reaction to handling the pandemic poorly, especially in public view, Myers suggested. The meatpacking industry, for example, came under fire for its COVID-19 practices, which led to more than 50,000 positive cases and 250 deaths, according to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. In December 2020, Tyson Foods hired its first CMO. One of her job duties is to oversee the launch of health clinics in seven communities where plants are located.
“Normally CMOs are focused on employee health but of course that has a huge impact on a community with employees going back out into the community and potentially spreading coronavirus,” Myers said.
Where CMOs and HR overlap
A CMO’s duties can be as varied as the companies that hire them. While they often focus on health and safety protocols, they can also work closely with human resources, especially the benefits team.
In her role as CMO of GE, Dr. Nimisha Kalia looks over claims data, analyzes tops utilizations categories and strategizes on how GE can adjust its benefits to meet employee needs.
For example, when GE saw that employees were filing a lot of claims for musculoskeletal disorders, they partnered with centers of excellence to treat those workers. “We would rather have them pay more to go to centers of excellent and ensure they don’t repeat surgery or have complications,” she said.
She has also helped in vetting potential vendors by offering a clinical point of view. With a recent increase in mental health claims, GE looked at apps it could make available to employees to help them determine if they’re depressed, for example. But Kalia noted that an app is only good if someone uses it.
“When you are depressed, it’s really hard for someone to have the energy to want to do any of that stuff,” she said. “If you get at the end of doing all these questions, you just get a name and you call that office and you get a voicemail and an appointment six weeks from now. That’s not helpful.”
That doesn’t mean they nixed apps all together. Instead, they used it as part of a support system. GE has leveraged its health coaches to “provide more of a warm touch to that last part. If you need an appointment, health coaches will really work closely with those employees,” she said.
Who can be a CMO?
Almost all CMOs are clinicians, but the role usually requires more than just patient care experience. “Many of the things these CMOs are being called on to do are not things that are taught in medical school,” Myers said. “It’s different treating a patient right in front of you than designing a return-to-work policy or thinking about COVID testing protocols.”
Not every doctor would make a good CMO “the same way you’d be hard pressed to find any profession where just having a degree will automatically make you good for a role, especially a senior role like this,” he said.
Kalia has done a little bit of everything: she has an MD, MPH and MBA, and she worked in clinical practice, academia and for Proctor & Gamble before taking on the GE CMO role. “You wear different hats. Population health background is key, and having a business background is really helpful. Most CMOs are working very closely with top leadership, so being able to speak the same language and advocate for resources for your department” is important, she said.
The pipeline for future CMOs is starting to be built too: A few medical schools and residency programs have occupational health as a path. In August, Emory University launched a Chief Medical Officer program, a 9- to 12-month executive program through its business school.
“It’s a niche skill set that will be interesting to try to recruit for,” said Myers. “It’s one of the questions we’ll see coming up for the next five years or so, if this trend continues…If CMO is top of the pipeline, what roles groom them for the future?”