The System He Always Saw

Steven Frisch, MD, reflects upon retirement

A genuine concern for others, and recognition of the strength in a network, have always been guiding principles of Steven M. Frisch’s life.

In the ’60s and ’70s, his father sold and supplied specialty ingredients to bakers around New York City. As a boy in Brooklyn, Dr. Frisch recalled the lengths his father would take to ensure his customers had what they needed--any time, any place.

“He would check on their stocks to make sure they weren’t running low. And if they called and said they ran out of a certain spice on a busy day, he would drive out to Long Island, even on a Saturday morning, to make a special delivery.”

His father was a caregiver. He supported his network.

Dr. Frisch reflected, “I don’t know that I’ve ever thought about it in present terms until this moment.”

The moment marks the culmination of a decades-long career caring for patients and working to build the network we now call the Albany Med Health System. He will retire at the end of 2022 after more than 40 years of visionary leadership that advanced health care in the Capital Region.

He saw a system that existed before it had a name.

Dr. Frisch graduated from Albany Medical College in 1979 and chose to stay here. It was because of the relationships he formed with people who trusted and inspired him, as well as the diverse presentation of patient conditions found at a regional academic medical center. Going into internal medicine, he thought about private practice, but was drawn to the hospital setting, where he could care for the most complex patients. He was also interested in their journeys to the Medical Center--where they were from, and what care they received before arriving in Albany.

“I’m an internist,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to know what makes people and systems tick.”

Dr. Frisch got to know the hospital well. It was not long before he would oversee all of internal medicine and primary care clinic operations at Albany Medical Center. Later, he would build his understanding of the business side of health care, sitting on the committee for physician practice operations while still seeing patients.

He recruited new physicians and remained interested in the regional health care landscape. Like his father, who was always checking in with his customers around the city, Dr. Frisch was hitting the road to get to know Albany Med’s customers.

“It was important to me to know who they were,” he said.

That includes our physicians--one of whom spent time stationed in Lake Placid.

“I would go to visit the hospital’s CEO on days I knew our physician was there. It was important to me that they both knew we were there to support them.”

Along the way, he began to observe synergies between Albany Med and community hospitals. The relationships were already there; many of these hospitals directed patients with critical illness or injury to Albany for advanced care, and Albany would refer patients back to community providers for ongoing care.

“Over time, I visited every hospital in our area. I walked the halls, met the people, and it gave me a feel for the region. We all come from different communities, but we all share a strong desire for excellent health care with as few barriers as possible. These providers excel at meeting the needs of their communities. Patients prefer to receive care close to home from people they know and trust, and they are reassured when they know they have easy access across the care continuum.”

Dr. Frisch would begin to examine that continuum even closer in 1995, when president emeritus Jim Barba would appoint him senior vice president of the integrated delivery system--a new position to extend resources for patients by fostering relationships with area health care providers. It led to notable affiliations with Capital Region Orthopaedic Associates, New York Oncology Hematology, Community Care Physicians, and the Visiting Nurses, more than 25 years prior to that organization formally entering the Albany Med Health System.

“The System would never have become what it is today without Steve,” Barba said. “He possesses two kinds of intelligence. He is analytic, understanding the relationships between data to solve complex problems. He is also an abstract thinker: a person who takes a concept or philosophy and views it from all angles to extract new solutions. The second quality is far rarer. I have never known anyone with both qualities. It was an intellectual delight to work with him.”

In one word, Barba described Dr. Frisch as, “indispensable.”

For 15 years, Dr. Frisch served as Albany Medical Center hospital general director. A progression from his oversight of internal medicine, he was responsible for all internal aspects of patient care on the Albany campus. At the same time, he also managed relationships with payers, still seeking a broader understanding of every plane on the global health care landscape. Despite his hospital role, Dr. Frisch kept his focus on the region and returned to a role exclusively focused on the integrated delivery system, for which he most recently served as senior executive vice president.

“Steve’s vision, and the relationships he formed, will forever form the core of the Albany Med Health System,” said Dennis P. McKenna, the System’s president and CEO. “There is hardly a relationship he didn’t nurture or an agreement he didn’t facilitate. He has been a trusted partner to the leaders on our campuses. Our region owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to Steve’s service and steadfast belief that we can independently serve as the best caregivers and advocates for the people of our own communities.”

A quick and tailored response to their needs is perhaps the most significant benefit of local governance. It determines what, where, and how the System delivers its services. Dr. Frisch believes Care One, our effort to build a unified electronic medical record and enterprise resource planning process, will accelerate further System integration. Numerous operational departments, such as Information Technology, Legal, Risk Management, Marketing, and Compliance are now fully integrated. Twenty clinical service lines are integrated across the system or between member campuses.

This, along with further integration, promises the efficient and effective delivery of broader resources for patients, and a long-term sustainability they and our workforce can count on.

Unfailingly humble, Dr. Frisch admitted, “We’ve done a lot.”

Always looking to the future, he said, “We will always strive to do better. No matter the topic, in business or life, folks theorize about the time, ‘when we get there.’ Well, ‘there’ keeps changing. It is never a static place. Today’s Albany Med Health System is not the same as it was in 2016, and it will be different years from now. We must continue to lead expectations and abilities so when we do get ‘there,’ we are already on our way to welcome what’s next.”

Ever the internist, who knew that each person’s care required a global approach. No stone unturned.

Ever the son of the baker’s supplier, who knew that every ingredient, and who you got it from, made all the difference.