It is with sadness and an acute sense of loss that we learned of the sudden death of Bernard J. Tyson, Chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente, on November 10, 2019. This is a loss that is deeply felt across our healthcare community, our nation, and the world; and it is deeply felt at National Medical Fellowships.
Mr. Tyson was (and in his legacy will continue to be) one of the most influential and creative healthcare leaders of our time. Under his leadership, Kaiser Permanente sought nothing less than to transform the way we address the health and healthcare needs of our communities. The Kaiser Permanente mission is to improve the physical health, mental health and wellness of every person, including those who have traditionally been underserved by our healthcare system. Tyson brought to this mission a strong personal commitment to health equity and social justice, and the charisma of a very successful business leader.
Tyson’s influence extended across an organization serving more than 12 million members—and also to the larger worlds of medical education and public policy. He advocated and worked for affordable healthcare for all Americans. He was deeply committed to improving access to mental health care in the communities served by Kaiser Permanente and across the healthcare system. He recognized the potential effects of poverty on health and healthcare access, and responded with innovative thinking, and generous support, for efforts that addressed homelessness, gun violence, lack of affordable housing, and other social determinants of health.
Tyson believed that it is important “to work within our communities,”
–to measure progress in terms of the “hearts, minds and realities of the people we care for.” As we know, working within the community means having a diverse healthcare workforce, made up of people who understand the realities that affect community health, and the health and lives of individual patients and their families. Tyson was committed to diversity in the healthcare workforce, especially among physicians, and physician leaders. It was that commitment that led him to provide transformational support to National Medical Fellowships (NMF), the only national organization that provides support to medical and health professions students from underserved communities.
The tributes that poured forth upon Tyson’s death referred to him as a “giant” in American healthcare, and an American Hero. To NMF, he was that, and something more – a person who was there, among us, and one of us. We saw this side of Tyson at our NMF Champions of Health Awards Bay Area Luncheon 2019, where Tyson graciously served as our Keynote Speaker. The luncheon raises funds for scholarships to support medical and health professions students from communities that traditionally have been underrepresented in the health professions. Our NMF Scholars are extraordinary young people–talented, idealistic and grateful for the chance to serve. We were delighted that a group of NMF Scholars from the Bay Area attended the luncheon, and were able to meet with Tyson. For our scholars, Tyson was clearly a model, a giant in the world that they would soon enter. But it seemed to us that Tyson looked to them, looked up to them—as if it was he who would some day stand on their shoulders. It “made my day,” he said “to shake hands with those who we all know will be the next generation of leadership and physician leadership, and physicians caring for the wonderful people of this nation and probably in this world.”
NMF has many reasons to feel grateful to Bernard J. Tyson and Kaiser Permanente. The generous support of Kaiser Permanente under Tyson’s leadership has built NMF’s capacity to support our shared mission, which is to build a diverse health professions workforce that will meet the health needs of all our communities. For the past seven years, Kaiser Permanente has generously partnered with NMF to plan and implement strategies to build a nationwide NMF Alumni network, as a platform for NMF Alumni leadership with the capacity to generate funds and resources for NMF; and this in turn has empowered us to support a new generation of healthcare leaders who will bring about the changes we hope to see.
We are grateful to Tyson, for his generous personal support of our scholars; and for his enthusiastic support of the inaugural NMF Champions of Health Awards Bay Area Luncheon in 2019.
NMF Board Chair Sandra B. Nichols, MD, said it best, when she welcomed Mr. Tyson to our Champions of Health Awards Bay Area Luncheon, with a long litany of thank you’s, which we recall today:
• “Thank you for the progress of healthcare in America and throughout the world, which is a direct reflection of your courage and perseverance.”
• “Thank you for leading the most innovated ethical company in the world.”
• “Thank you for valuing equality and equity, not only for your employees, but for people of this country, of this world, even the homeless that we all see every single day.”
• “Thank you for constantly reminding all of us that good health is essential to the American ideal of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
• “Thank you for drilling it into all of us as healthcare professionals that we are obligated to ensure those unalienable rights are not compromised because of demographics, diversity or social economic status.”
And finally, we must thank Bernard J. Tyson for leaving this legacy to us, to help us achieve his mission and ours, in the years to come.