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Meet Dr. Susan Smarr, Kaiser Permanente

Susan Smarr headshotPhysician-in-Chief, Kaiser Permanente, and Joint Venture board member

By Duffy Jennings | Published: September 2014

In most cases landing on your feet is a good thing, but the first time Susan Smarr tried it she ended up in the hospital and spent the next three months in a wheelchair.

Then she made two life-changing decisions. First, no more skydiving. Second, that personal experience in the health care system drew her to a career in medicine.

Today, Dr. Susan Smarr is the physician-in-chief and chief of staff at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Santa Clara, overseeing 740 doctors, 5000 staff and 330,000 Silicon Valley patients.

A Joint Venture board member since 2009, Smarr is a nationally regarded obstetrician and gynecologist, a clinical assistant professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine and a senior teaching staff physician at Kaiser.

Dr. Smarr also serves widely on professional and community boards and organizations and was honored by Senator Elaine Alquist as Santa Clara County Woman of the Year in 2012.

Much of it Smarr traces back to a risky touchdown in a parachute when she was a senior botany student at Duke University in 1977, but we’ll get back to that later.

Dr. Smarr says Kaiser in the South Bay today is experiencing two important trends in patient care, both of them leading to fewer and shorter in-patient stays and more efficient care in or out of the hospital.

“The first thing I'd say is that she is passionate about her patients. Our culture is all about putting each patient at the center of everything we do. Susan personifies that."

“The biggest trend for us now is the movement to mobile platforms,” says Dr. Smarr. “We’re bringing care to the patient at home, in the office and on the road with and our KP Preventive app for mobile devices.

“About 75 percent of our patients are online or using mobile devices to manage their own care. They can email their doctor, make appointments and have video visits without coming into the office or hospital.

“With our telederm service, they can send in a photo of a skin growth and have it examined by a dermatologist. They can refill prescriptions, read their lab test results, view their medical records. There’s no co-pay and it’s really easy.”

A related significant evolution in patient care, says Dr. Smarr, is the emphasis on reducing in-patient time with more high intensity and efficient care in order to return the patient to the comfort of their home environment.

“In the past we were often encouraged to spend extra days in the hospital for tests or procedures that no longer require extended stays. We’re making sure they receive prompt and efficient care and are using their time in the hospital wisely.”

“Susan is a role model physician leader,” says Lawrence Hamilton, the medical group administrator who partners with Dr. Smarr as the administrative leader for Kaiser Permanente in Santa Clara. “The first thing I'd say is that she is passionate about her patients. Our culture is all about putting each patient at the center of everything we do. Susan personifies that."

Susan in red jacket and floral hat with two friends

“Plus, she's a great proponent that people may not remember every single thing you say or every single thing you show them, but they will remember how you made them feel. Time with Susan is always rich in information, ideas and open discussion; people leave feeling treasured for the contribution they bring."

Hamilton added that Dr. Smarr “loves to make people laugh” and her performance as one of the Blues Brothers at a 1990s-themed company party last year “brought the house down.”

One popular new trend in care, says Dr. Smarr, is the “centering” of prenatal care, where cohorts of five or six couples with the same gestational age opt to go through pregnancy together.

“This is so cool,” says Dr. Smarr. “It’s just the most fantastic program.

Susan painting wall

“The couples all bond with each other, have group meetings, share many of the same questions and discuss the rumors and old wives tales. One will say she heard you’re not supposed to take your baby out in public for six weeks, and everybody will chime in on the discussion.”

Dr. Smarr is particularly pleased at the diversity of such groups – “we have techie Silicon Valley entrepreneurial types, working class moms and dads, teachers and engineers” – who connect respectfully and share the experience openly, during the pregnancy and often afterward. “It’s a whole new world of pregnancy and child rearing,” she says.

“We even aim for the delivery experience to be more spa-like where the husband is welcome, the entire family is supported and there are celebratory meals and other amenities.”

Bringing divergent groups together to improve the overall health and quality of life in Silicon Valley is a goal that Kaiser shares with Joint Venture and what attracts Dr. Smarr to the organization.

“At Kaiser we want our community to be healthier, in both a medical and cultural sense,” says Dr. Smarr. “We’re very aligned in our mission as an organization with Joint Venture."

“Joint Venture is working on things that we believe in, community initiatives that help Kaiser in areas that I’m very passionate about,” she added, citing the Wireless Communications Initiative for better broadband access and the Silicon Valley Index data on public health and childhood obesity in particular.

“I’m particularly gratified that we are starting to bend the curve on childhood obesity, finally,” she says.

“One thing we’re both interested in globally is the economic health of the entire Silicon Valley business community. Both organizations are focused on how we keep businesses and the public sector strong and robust, and make sure that our community is providing everything we need for our kids and families,” she added.

Susan Smarr was born in Savannah, Georgia to Joseph Smarr Sr., a career auditor for the railroad, and his wife, Mary, a stenographer who also worked for the railroad. Susan’s older brother, Joe Jr., passed away earlier this summer.

“Savannah is a good place to be from,” she says. “It’s beautiful, and slower paced, but it has two things California doesn’t – humidity and bugs. We had a fun childhood, though. We got free passes to ride the trains and our parents would take us up to Washington, D.C. to see the museums and the historic landmarks.

“We used to go fishing and camping, too, and catch and cook live crabs. Dad would get a big pot of water and throw in a whole box of salt, pine cones, some lemons and a bunch of blue crabs.”

“Joint Venture is working on things that we believe in, community initiatives that help Kaiser in areas that I’m very passionate about,”

When it came time for college, Susan opted to leave home for Duke University in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she studied botany. “I like chemistry and biochemistry. I even got a job offer from Kellogg’s to move to Battle Creek, Michigan and help them design better corn flakes.”

But in her senior year at Duke, a pilot friend persuaded her to ride along on a skydiving flight.

“I was only going to watch,” Smarr recalls. “We went up in this Cessna 172 and I saw all the skydivers jump out of the plane. It looked like fun so I decided to try it.”

After some lessons from instructor Bill Gatcomb, a moonlighting Air Force officer, she joined the other skydivers. “My first jump was really fun. On my thirteenth jump, I tried a standup landing for the first time. I hadn’t trained for it and I broke both my ankles.

“Bill took me to the ER. I was in a wheelchair for three months and I ended up graduating in it.”

She also ended up marrying Bill, now her husband of 33 years. An engineer by training, Bill went to work for Hewlett Packard after leaving the Air Force.

Susan, meanwhile, graduated from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in 1983 and completed her residency in obstetrics and gynecology at North Carolina Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill in 1987.

Dr. Smarr and her husband moved to California in 1987 when Hewlett Packard transferred Bill to Cupertino. She started with Kaiser as a senior teaching staff physician and has held numerous administrative positions since, rising to her current role in 2008.

Susan running marathon

In addition to Joint Venture, she is a fellow of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and a member of the Santa Clara County and California Medical Societies.

With all of her responsibilities, she still manages to run 25 miles per week, plays golf regularly and travels with their two rescue dogs Bob, 10, and Shadow 6.

“We just got an RV for the dogs,” she said, half joking, as she and Bill, now retired, have long been active volunteers with German Shepherd Rescue of Northern California. “We take them everywhere with us.”

She won’t, however, be taking them skydiving any time soon.

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