Lloyd Dean grew up with eight siblings and no health insurance. He’s now beginning his 16th year as president and CEO of Dignity Health, a nonprofit that serves patients in 21 states through hundreds of hospitals and community clinics, many of them Catholic. Dean’s kept Dignity in the black since 2002 and built it into the fifth-largest hospital chain in the country. He talked with STAT about his work, his undercover hospital visits, and his fondness for the Kardashians.

What do you think are the biggest problems facing health care today? 

Number one is the instability of our system. You have a lot of folks benefitting from various aspects of the Affordable Care Act who are very, very much afraid [that it will go away]. Number two, making sure we have enough physicians and clinical staff to serve an aging population. How we finance health care continues to be a challenge. How we use existing and emerging technology. I’m still concerned about health disparities.

You take a very broad view of health care. Why do you think care needs to go beyond doctors’ offices and hospitals?

If a child is not safe in their community either because of domestic or gang violence, that’s an issue that impacts health. If one is struggling to get food, if one does not have access to mental health services, that impacts health care.

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You talk about the importance of making sure your employees are genuinely caring, but can you really assess that from the CEO’s chair?

I’ll get up some Saturdays and throw on a jogging outfit and go into one of our waiting rooms and just sit and talk to people and patients, and watch how we’re helping people with directions, watch what happens in the parking lot. I try to observe from the eye of the patient as opposed to the eye of the CEO.

But, obviously, you get VIP treatment in your own facilities, no?

There’s no question I get some preference. That’s the upside. The funny side: A few years ago, I was getting my colonoscopy. I’m laying on the table, and there’s physicians coming in talking to me, saying they need a new computer in the physician’s lounge, there’s nurses coming in saying, “Oh, Mr. Dean, I’ve been waiting to meet you!”

When and how did you first get interested in health care?

Probably in my early teens. I lived in a community that really didn’t have any access to health services. My father worked on and off in a factory, so we never had health insurance. I was bussed to an upper-middle-class school where kids were doing things like getting passes to go to their dental checkup or to see a primary care physician. The first physician I saw was for a football physical.

You run a hospital chain that includes Catholic hospitals and has Catholic roots. What role does religion play in your life?

I grew up in a very religious family. I’m not Catholic, but I could pass the test. I’ve worked in faith-based organizations the majority of my life.

Where do you come down on the issue of abortion?

I’m very clear on that issue. We don’t do elective abortions at any of our facilities, Catholic or community-based.

Is there anything surprising on your personal reading list?

Most people are stunned that I know what’s going on with the Kardashians or Judge Judy. I like to do things that are mindless because most of the things I do during the day involve a level beyond that, with no disrespect to Judge Judy or the Kardashians.

Is there one object that you think represents who you are right now?

A beating heart. At the center of that heart would be a picture of my family. Blood pumps through all of us, and the heart is a universal connector. We have many, many, many more commonalities than we have differences.

Lloyd Dean is president and CEO of Dignity Health, a hospital chain that includes 59,000 employees and is the largest hospital provider in California. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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