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March 14, 2023
David W. Johnson

Gary Bisbee: A Man for All Seasons

Gary Bisbee (1942-2023)

Last Friday Gerald E. (Gary) Bisbee, co-founder of the Health Management Academy and Think Medium, underwent a routine outpatient procedure and never woke up. In the wake of Gary’s sudden death, those of us who knew and loved him are left to pick up the pieces and make sense of a world devoid of his persistent, self-deprecating, cheerful, energetic and informed presence.

Gary had huge batteries and reach. Just four months shy of his 81st birthday, I thought he would live forever. He was in fantastic shape. Worked out every day. Was a competitive bicycle racer well into his 70s. Hadn’t lost a step intellectually. Published The New Health Economy just last year with Sanjula Jain and Don Trigg. Seemingly knew everybody in healthcare. Was constantly growing his network by engaging and interviewing emerging leaders.

I first met Gary over twenty years ago as the Health Management Academy was launching its CFO Forum. I was a senior investment banker at Merrill Lynch and one of the Forum’s inaugural industry members. Although a generation apart, Gary and I shared a deep interest in healthcare policy, markets, all things Minnesota, communications, organizational development and reading. Our relationship was magic from the beginning.

Gary had a heroic work ethic, insatiable curiosity, intense purpose and a common touch. He was a great friend and family man who kept his multifaceted life in balance. He did this by living every day like it could be his last until it was. Gary exemplified the virtues of being fully engaged and present. His is a model for the well-lived life.

Born in the early 1940s, this “son of a preacher man” rambled through the upper Midwest as he came of age. He was a ferocious hockey player in northern Minnesota who somehow managed to keep all his teeth. Gary blossomed academically in the 1960s and 70s as he graduated from North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, earned an MBA (from Wharton) before it was cool, and a Ph.D. from Yale in chronic disease epidemiology (how prescient was that?).

It was at Yale that this lifelong Midwesterner transformed into a Connecticut Yankee who eschewed socks and embraced a patrician demeanor. It was also at Yale that he became a serious healthcare policy wonk, writing his dissertation on the development of Diagnostic Related Groups (DRGs). A decade later, Medicare incorporated DRGs as its primary payment system for hospitals.

After Yale, Gary was a successful healthcare investment banker at Kidder Peabody in New York City. Kidder Peabody was a classic old-school Wall Street firm with roots dating to the 1860s. In the late 1970s, Kidder started a quantitative research department that integrated mathematics into finance. Gary was among its first recruits. He eventually founded and led the firm’s Corporate Finance Healthcare Group. It was at Kidder that Gary led the IPO for the technology company Cerner, where he served on the board for over thirty years.

Gary stayed at Kidder through its acquisition by General Electric in 1986. During this time, Gary maintained his academic chops by teaching at Yale and Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. For a time, he also was president of the AHA’s Health Research and Educational Trust. All these relationships became important for subsequent partnerships and program development at the Health Management Academy.

By the 1990s, Gary’s healthcare and banking expertise, along with a keen entrepreneurial instinct, led him to found two companies, APACHE Medical Systems and ReGen Biologics. Like all start-ups, these companies had their share of successes and failures. Gary learned from the experiences, adapted to circumstances and engineered successful exits. It was at APACHE that Gary met Sherrie Jones, his partner in founding the Health Management Academy.

At the Academy, Gary’s academic background, policy expertise, banking acumen and entrepreneurial agility came together in ideal fashion. Sherrie and Gary launched the Academy in 1998 with the creation of a Chief Medical Officers forum. Their timing was impeccable. Health systems were in their infancy, and the Academy became a remarkable nexus for health system and industry leaders to connect and learn from one another.

In its early days, the Academy was an absolute blast. Gary and Sherrie were improvising constantly as the organization grew and prospered. New forums and initiatives proliferated. I helped in any way I could by creating thought leadership, hosting policy dinners, launching a benchmarking collaborative, moderating panels and recruiting members. It was during this time that Gary honed his skill as an interviewer. He could have trademarked the term “fireside chat.”

Perhaps the most enduring of Gary’s initiatives at the Academy was the creation of the GE Fellows program. Nominated by member systems, promising executives received leadership training at GE’s Crotonville Institute and ongoing mentoring during a two-year program. Graduates of the program received an Academy-emblazoned captain’s chair and have become the backbone of the organization’s ongoing health system membership. Brilliant.

It was at the Academy, that Gary started distributing his “Bisbee Briefs” every Sunday. The BBs were concise, clearly written 250-word pieces on whatever topics were top of mind for him. They were often just-in-time distributions but always on point. It’s hard to jam multiple great thoughts into a short commentary. Gary was a master at it. His last Bisbee Brief published posthumously. That’s fitting. Gary ran his life’s race right through the finish line.

I was an active Academy industry member through 2014 when I decided to leave banking and launch 4sight Health. Ever the mensch, Gary suggested I become the Academy’s author-in-residence to keep my network intact and enable the industry to see me in a new and different light. We even created an “Academy Press” logo to accompany my first book, Market vs. Medicine.

New companies need credibility and an identity. The Academy’s warm embrace of 4sight Health helped our small company get traction in the healthcare marketplace. In retrospect, I cannot thank Gary enough for his support.

One last story. We decided to launch our 4sight Health Roundup podcast (the best twenty minutes in healthcare each week) during the COVID spring of 2020. Gary was my first choice as a cohost. He graciously accepted. For over thirty episodes, we discussed, queried, debated and laughed with one another and the show’s moderator David Burda.

That November at age 78, Gary left 4sight Health Roundup to launch a new media company called Think Medium. I like to think we helped encourage that leap. Like so much of what Gary touched, Think Medium has turned to gold. Last year, their audio, video and written content had over 5 million views.

I’ve been listening to old 4sight Health Roundup episodes with Gary this week. His institutional memory and perspective on healthcare are amazing. What I’m enjoying most, however, are the small exchanges, the humor and personal touches that Gary brought to the program. I already miss him enormously but will cherish his memory forever.

We all walk this earth. Gary Bisbee left very deep footprints. He was a man for all seasons: a great leader, entrepreneur, analyst, collaborator, commentator, interviewer and thought leader. But, most of all, Gary was a truly great friend.

Listen to all the episodes of Gary talking with David Johnson and Dave Burda on the 4sight Health Roundup podcast here.

About the Author

David W. Johnson

David Johnson is the CEO of 4sight Health, an advisory company working at the intersection of healthcare strategy, economics, innovation. Johnson is a healthcare thought leader, keynote speaker, and strategic advisor to organizations busting the status-quo to reform our healthcare system. He is the author of Market vs. Medicine: America’s Epic Fight for Better, Affordable Healthcare, and his second book, The Customer Revolution in Healthcare: Delivering Kinder, Smarter, Affordable Care for All (McGraw-Hill 2019). As a speaker, Dave plays the role of rebel, challenger, industry historian, investor and company evaluator to push audiences forward. (Watch bio video.) Johnson applies his 25+ years of investment banking in healthcare to identify ways the healthcare industry must change to deliver better care. He received a Masters in Public Policy from Harvard Kennedy School, an English degree from Colgate University, and served in the African Peace Corp service. Join over 10k+ healthcare executives who read our weekly insights and commentary on www.4sighthealth.com. His third book, Less Healthcare, More Health: The Prescription for a Happier, More Equitable and Productive America, will publish in 2024.

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