By Steve Gilford
Senior consulting historian
As an independent historian with a long-standing interest in Kaiser Permanente, I was fortunate to be invited to the daylong 60th anniversary celebration of the Southern California Permanente Medical Group, held recently in Anaheim, Calif.
The event was to mark the medical group’s formal start in 1953 when 13 Permanente physicians, including Ray Kay, the first medical director, signed a partnership agreement that officially formed SCPMG.
The group’s origin actually goes back to 1943 when Henry J. Kaiser asked Permanente co-founder Sidney Garfield, MD, to establish a health care plan for workers of the Kaiser Steel mill in Fontana.
Today, SCPMG has more than 6,000 physicians practicing in 14 accredited Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and more than 190 medical office buildings.
Pride a theme of celebration
As I observed the events of the day (Sept. 28, 2013), I heard Permanente physicians express pride in the organization and its legacy. But at first I wasn’t entirely sure the expressions were genuine, or if it was similar to the type of pride shown for a football team or one’s alma mater.
As the day unfolded, it became increasingly clear that this was an authentic professional pride rooted in SCPMG’s 60-year history of trials and triumphs.
Pride in the organization can be traced back even further, to the tiny 12-bed hospital Sidney Garfield built in 1933 on a parched and lonely piece of desert land in one of the most physically inhospitable places in the United States.
The organization that sprang from that little frame building in the Mojave Desert, with its one doctor and one nurse, was being celebrated by thousands gathered together in one of the most populous and powerful metropolises of the nation.
Roll call gets vociferous response
Edward Ellison, MD, the SCPMG executive medical director, began the day by calling the roll of Southern California’s medical centers represented at the gathering. Each medical center team responded to the call with a spontaneous cheer that resonated across the large hall.
There was no question that these physicians were enthusiastic, but it was not yet clear to me just why they were responding with such vigor. Was it like the way people in a talk-show studio audience react when someone mentions their hometown?
Was it just because they had found a comfortable place to practice medicine outside the increasingly stormy arena of fee-for-service medicine, relieved to be insulated from some of the stresses their professional colleagues were facing?
Or was it truly because they were recognizing that they were a part of an organization that was truly special, with a leadership that encouraged them to practice preventive care and to take great care of their healthy members, as well as their sick patients?
Celebrities tout Permanente’s national role
As a part of the proceedings, there were dramatizations featuring Henry Kaiser, Sidney Garfield and even Rosie the Riveter – all well done and entertaining. They set the stage for Kevin Starr, noted California historian and author, and Nancy Snyderman, MD, chief medical editor, NBC News, and award-winning journalist.
The celebrities’ presentations put the achievements of Kaiser Permanente into perspective, each emphasizing the contribution of the organization to the nation’s health care.
Starr and Snyderman were the stars of the day, but for me the day’s high point was an onstage discussion by the four surviving SCPMG executive medical directors – Frank Murray, MD, 1982-1993, Oliver Goldsmith, MD, 1994- 2004, Jeffrey Weisz, MD, 2004-2011, and Edward Ellison, MD, current executive director.
They presented the organizational challenges that they had faced in their time and told how they had overcome them.
Through all their recollections flowed a strong streak of natural idealism that had helped them shape their responses to the challenges of their time at the helm. Their remarks – more than any other presentation – made it clear that SCPMG leaders created and passed on a strong legacy that was to be treasured, defended and enhanced.
As the day drew to a close, Dr. Ellison summed up what he felt was special about Permanente Medicine and SCPMG. “We are building infrastructure for the future . . . I am confident that our approach to achieving the total health of our patients in mind, body and spirit is the successful path to that future.
“Our conquering, enduring spirit, combined with our passion for medicine and our caring from the heart, will sustain us for the next 60 years,” he told the group.
Often, when you hear such presentations made by leaders in front of their staffs, if you listen carefully you can hear quiet undertones of mildly cynical scoffing or snickering from the rank and file who may have a quite different perspective on the relation between idealism and reality.
That afternoon I was listening closely for that tell-tale buzz from among the 3,000 people in the hall. I didn’t hear it.
What I did hear was enthusiastic agreement with what Dr. Ellison was saying. I understood then that the pride I had sensed in the responses to his morning roll call of the medical centers had been genuine and had only been enhanced by the day’s focus on the achievements and potential of Permanente Medicine.
I left Anaheim with a renewed sense of pride in my association with Kaiser Permanente, for my modest part in searching out, saving and communicating its history to new generations of physicians who will preserve and expand the legacy begun by its founders.