Scott Rivkees: A leader's journey in medicine, science and public service

From his start as a medical resident and postdoc at Mass General Hospital to Surgeon General for the State of Florida, Dr. Rivkees has assembled a noteworthy career by focusing his efforts on two fundamentals: medical science and transformational leadership.

photo of Scott Rivkees

In the realm of healthcare, leadership can be as impactful as any treatment or discovery. For Dr. Scott Rivkees this notion rings true in every role he assumes. Whether as a physician, researcher, professor or politician, Rivkees has demonstrated an exceptional ability in effecting meaningful change wherever his path leads.

First and foremost, Scott Rivkees is a physician-scientist. After completing medical school at the New Jersey Medical School, he undertook residency and fellowship training in pediatrics and pediatric endocrinology, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship in neuroscience at Mass General Hospital in Boston. While there, he became enamored with pioneering research focused on neuroendocrinology and developmental biology — which was rooted in basic science research.  With that interest firmly planted in his mind and broad practice with patients of all ages, he decided to focus his energy and efforts on work that incorporated basic science in making a difference in the lives of the youngest patients in pediatric endocrinology. He transitioned from being a trainee to a faculty member at Mass General Hospital, where he was for 13 years.

After a short stint on the medical faculty of Indiana University, he transitioned to Yale where he expanded his clinical focus to pediatric thyroid disease. Yale’s deep expertise in thyroid research and clinical care, proved to be fertile ground for establishing a pioneering center focused on understanding and treating some of the most difficult cases of thyroid disease in children. At the same time, he continued his basic-science neuroscience and developmental biology research, which was supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In the thyroid realm, Rivkees discovered that one of the most commonly used medicines for treating hyperthyroidism had a risk of significant liver toxicity that could lead to liver failure or death. His leadership and research led him to work with NIH and the Federal Drug Administration, to stop the use of this medication in children, saving lives.

His research — highlighted in over 300 academic papers — combined with his partnerships propelled him onto the national stage. After 16 years at Yale, he was recruited to the University of Florida where he served as Chair of Pediatrics and Physician-in-Chief for Shands Children's Hospital. While at the University of Florida, he grew the Department of Pediatrics into a top-ranked program. He oversaw more than 200 faculty members, hundreds of trainees, and had an annual budget of about $120 million. His work in pediatric programs that involved the Florida Department of Health caught the attention of the state’s political establishment. Once again, he was recruited away from his post, this time into government as State Surgeon General and Secretary of Health for Florida, the nation's third most populous state. 

Rivkees desire to make as much of a difference as he could in every role, not only landed him a position where he could influence health on a grand scale, it left him with leadership insights that cut across academics, the private sector and government.


Step up and step out (of your comfort zone)

In addition to his passion for research and patient care, Rivkees developed a strong appreciation for leadership that transforms people and organizations. “While I was at Yale, I became very interested in training junior faculty members,” Rivkees notes. “As part of my responsibility, I was asked to help lead the Yale Child Health Research Center which required bringing faculty together to work across different fields and career stages. I saw the value of bringing people together to accomplish common goals — advancing discovery and health.” He points out that in his research and patient care roles, as well as in his administrative duties, the next generation of physician-scientists and care-givers are vital.

“In every place I worked, I made it my mission to not only focus on science and medicine, but take on the leadership responsibilities that could have an impact on the organization, community and the field.” Rivkees mentioned that people shouldn’t shy away from greater levels of responsibility, especially if that entails taking on leadership roles, something that many physicians are afraid to do. “It is important to not be afraid to change your professional direction and to build off each step in your career for the next.” These are words that Rivkees lives by.  “Pediatrics is about the next generation — children and those who care for them. Pediatric physician-leaders need to recognize that they are responsible for both.”

“ In every place I worked, I made it my mission to not only focus on science and medicine, but take on the leadership responsibilities that could have an impact on the organization, community and the field. ”

Scott Rivkees, M.D.

Don’t shy away from being creative

One of the keys for academic success that Rivkees emphasized is creativity. Rivkees found that often in his career he was working on scientific or clinical challenges where there was no precedent for the situation he and his teams were facing. 

At Yale, for example, his research center was responsible for determining how to best understand and treat some of the most unusual and complex pediatric thyroid cases. Rivkees says, “These kinds of challenges require that you look at a problem differently than how others have looked at it. At its core, the advancement of basic science and clinical medicine is about being creative. How can you ask different questions and have the confidence to pursue different and new treatments?”

To that end, Rivkees is not a fan of having every day scripted and planned, with no time for reflection or free thought. “People need time to think,” he quips. “I always made sure that part of my day was free of scheduled commitments — where I had the space and time to think about some of the challenges I was facing and come up with new ideas.” This is indeed an obstacle for physicians and leaders in today’s over committed world.


Seek the best advice you can find

Rivkees was influenced strongly by his early experiences working in the laboratory and in medicine. “While studying specific areas during my training at MGH, I realized there was much to be learned from the greatest experts in the field — especially since I was surrounded by them,” he offers. “So wherever I have been confronted with a challenging problem or issue I always ask myself, ‘Who are the experts working on this?’ I made it a practice to always solicit the best advice I could while not being afraid to speak to the top people in the field.”

The pandemic provided a particularly salient example of this approach for Rivkees.

Within months of taking up the post of Secretary of Health for Florida, COVID-19 exploded onto the scene. Florida has the second oldest population per capita in the United States. As the person responsible for the public health response to the outbreak, Rivkees was thrust into the position of having to plan to protect high risk citizens with little precedent. “When the pandemic started, there were a handful of people who knew what was happening and what was going to happen, and I reached out to them. I stayed in regular contact with the U.S. Surgeon General, FDA commissioner, the CDC Director, members of the White House CoronaVirus Task Force, those in the NIH and other State Health Officers,” he said. He also spoke regularly with Ashish Jha, Dean of Brown’s School of Public Health, one of the chief advisors in the United States during the pandemic. It was these conversations and the insights learned from them, which enabled him and his team to implement many mitigation measures, before other states adopted them, protecting one of the most medically vulnerable states in the country. A testament to his efforts was that mid-way through the pandemic, Florida had one of the lower COVID-19 mortality rates in the country.

After two and a half years, he stepped down from his high-profile post in Florida and joined the School of Public Health at Brown. His new roles include Professor of Practice and Interim Chair of Health Service, Policy and Practice in the School of Public Health, as well as the Academic Director of the Master of Science in Healthcare Leadership program in the School of Professional Studies,

Although his roles have changed, he’s not forgotten the core values that have carried him this far: creativity, hard work, sticktoitiveness and the willingness to seek the expert advice. He hopes that his knowledge and experience as a practitioner, physician-scientist and a public servant will be tapped for the benefit of Brown University and greater Rhode Island. Given all that he’s accomplished, there’s no doubt it will be.

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