Aaron Byzak, who leads external affairs for Tri-City Medical Center in Oceanside, has a very personal connection to the hospital – he was born there in 1977.
Byzak, 45, grew up in Carlsbad, Oceanside and Vista, the three cities that came together in 1957 to create the not-for-profit healthcare district served by Tri-City Medical Center (TCMC) today. His unconventional journey from an impoverished childhood with parents who had substance-abuse issues to one of San Diego’s most ardent public health advocates is an inspirational story.
“Unfortunately, both of my parents had serious drug issues when I was a kid,” Byzak said. “So, we were poor and moved around frequently.”
At the age of 10, Byzak was often left in charge of his father’s surf shop in an area that, at the time, was a rough part of Oceanside. “When customers would come in, they’d ask where my parents were,” Byzak recalls. “I’d tell them my father was out back, even though he was usually a half a block away in his shaping room. Then I’d sell them a surfboard and a t-shirt.”
After graduating from Carlsbad High, Byzak worked as an EMT for AMR, delivering patients every day to North County medical facilities including Tri-City.
Then, at the age of 20, his life changed dramatically when he was diagnosed with a congenital heart condition called Wolff-Parkinson-White, which results in extra electrical pathways in the heart that cause irregular heartbeats and in severe cases, cardiac arrest.
“As a child, I was symptomatic. I used to get light-headed a lot. I would be out playing baseball and would suddenly feel like I was going to faint,” Byzak said. “But we were poor and only had Medi-Cal when I was a kid, so I had limited healthcare options.”
A year-and-a-half later, the condition caused him to collapse during pre-paramedic school training and he was rushed to the ER by ambulance. After a battery of tests, doctors discovered that Byzak required immediate intervention. Shortly thereafter, Byzak’s extra electrical pathways, 11 in all, were burned out through a medical procedure called radiofrequency ablation.
Byzak said surviving his medical crisis compelled him to become “passionate” about healthcare policy. “The experience opened my eyes and made me decide to look for ways to personally help improve our healthcare system for the most vulnerable among us – to prevent a repeat of what happened to me as a child.”
In 2001, Byzak enrolled at MiraCosta College and began interning for then state Senator Bill Morrow. A few years later, after transferring to Chapman University, Byzak was hired as a district representative and policy advisor for the senator, helping to directly shape public healthcare policy in the California State Legislature while still attending undergraduate school.
He eventually went to graduate school, earning an MBA in healthcare management and policy from UC Irvine and also completed healthcare leadership programs at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and Cornell University’s executive leadership program.
Byzak then spent nearly eight years at UCSD Health Sciences as senior director of government and community affairs. When he was laid off in 2017, he worked as a healthcare and public affairs consultant for a year before going to work as chief external affairs officer at Tri-City.
In his four years as chief external affairs officer at TCMC, Byzak has helped rebuild the 386-bed, 500,000-square-foot hospital’s public image and won numerous awards for his team’s innovative public relations, marketing, and community outreach campaign strategies, including the hospital COASTAL Commitment. COASTAL, which stands for Community Outreach and Support Through Active Leadership, supports more than 80 local nonprofits addressing priority health needs and social determinants of health, including healthcare access for at-risk communities.
“My team is much smaller than most of the marketing teams for other area hospitals,” Byzak said. “So I tell everybody I hire that we have to be jack-of-all trades – and a master of all of them.”
For the hospital’s 60th anniversary in 2021, Byzak created a comprehensive outreach campaign along with eye-catching art installations and a fresh pallet of interior paints to transform selected hallways and wall space throughout the hospital into educational – and inspirational – windows into North County life. He calls them “pockets of awesome.”
That campaign recently netted 23 top awards at the Health Care Communicators of Southern California’s annual recognition event, including Best in Show for the second year in a row, and a bevy of additional awards for TCMC’s “Heroes Live Here” campaign, which featured displays inside and outside the hospital honoring the many healthcare heroes who work at TCMC.
“We were extremely honored to be recognized at that level considering the quality of our competition,” Byzak said.
“The awards submission process is important to us because it not only validates the work we’re doing but also serves as a quality assurance program for my team – it forces us to get better at everything we do,” added Byzak, who earlier this year, also became the 2022-23 board chair at the San Diego North Economic Development Council.
In both his roles with Tri-City and the EDC, Byzak was instrumental in helping launch a new initiative called Student Opportunities for Career Awareness and Learning – SOCAL – which includes the socalworkforce.org website that provides a locally focused workforce generation tool that helps students and career-transitioning individuals learn about and enter fields like healthcare – as well as find jobs with local employers.
Byzak has a history of creating influential, community-based organizations. In 2013, he founded and continues to serve as “chief advocate” for Hazel’s Army, a Vista-based organization that fights for better care for vulnerable populations in care facilities and in the broader community through legislative advocacy, consumer awareness, and community education.
In 2014, Hazel’s Army helped pass the most comprehensive assisted living reform agenda in California’s history. The organization’s educational program, GreatGen 2.0, has worked with educators throughout Southern California to promote intergenerational education. The program was initially launched at Byzak’s alma mater, Carlsbad High, in 2015 and to date has impacted more than 7,000 area students.
Byzak has also serves as board chair for the North Coastal Prevention Coalition (NCPC), a nationally renowned alcohol and drug-abuse prevention organization that focuses on at-risk youth. Next year marks his 20th year volunteering for NCPC.
While serving on a number of other local boards as well, Byzak also manages to find the time to coach his two children in youth baseball while also volunteering regularly for numerous North County community projects – a pretty impressive resume for a one-time at-risk kid who sold surfboards by the seashore – and survived a life-threatening medical condition.
The Business Journal caught up with Byzak this week and among other questions, asked him how the pandemic has impacted and altered the local healthcare landscape.
SDBJ: How has the day-to-day business of healthcare delivery at Tri-City changed and evolved during the pandemic?
Byzak: “Healthcare organizations are experts at responding when the community needs us most, but the pandemic really put that to the test. The pandemic response has shifted over time ranging from the early days where state prohibitions on non-emergent procedures left hospitals largely empty, to the surge months where hospitals were full of very critically ill COVID-19 positive patients. At Tri-City, we also went through a significant period of time in which we focused on vaccination efforts at our hospital and in the community. We were proud to provide well in excess of 40,000 vaccine doses at our medical center and do it is a safe and efficient manner. Now, while COVID-19 is still a concern, we continue to treat thousands of patients with non-COVID related illnesses and injuries.”
SDBJ: What parts of your operation have been most impacted by the pandemic – and how has the hospital and its staff adjusted to the “new normal” spurred by COVID-19?
Byzak: “The “new normal” is pretty difficult. Many people at hospitals across the country are feeling the cumulative impact of more than two years of pandemic-related pressure. Due to this, and a variety of other variables, hospitals and other industries are suffering from workforce challenges. This continues to be a priority for us – recruiting and retaining the best and brightest for key positions at our hospital. Beyond that, there are significant pandemic-related financial impacts that have highlighted the need to operate as efficiently as possible while continuing to elevate the quality of patient care and the patient experience.”
SDBJ: How much of a role does homelessness and alcohol and substance abuse play today in treating the area’s most vulnerable patients – and has the pandemic increased those issues?
Byzak: “Recent data and experience shows that mental health challenges, as well as substance abuse issues, have increased during the pandemic. At Tri-City Medical Center we treat many vulnerable patients from our community. Our Outpatient Behavioral Health Services in Vista is an incredible resource for those suffering from substance abuse and mental health challenges. We’re also partnering with the County of San Diego to open a new Psychiatric Health Facility on our campus in fall 2023. Additionally, we’re passionate about helping at-risk groups and individuals through our COASTAL Commitment outreach initiative. This is why we focus on working with community partners to help vulnerable populations to prevent substance use and abuse, to address homelessness and housing instability, the need for healthcare access including mental health services, as well as education and economic empowerment opportunities, and more.”
SDBJ: What’s the secret to putting together an effective and successful marketing campaign in today’s “noisy” social media universe?
Byzak: “Effective marketing and outreach campaigns are about building trust and informing your audience about who you are as an organization. In a community where many people already think they know your organization, it can be even more difficult. Our goal is to connect with our community in a meaningful way and share with them the amazing opportunities that exist because of Tri-City —whether that is receiving quality, compassionate care close to home, or finding a meaningful career serving our community, or partnering with us to elevate the quality of life for Carlsbad, Oceanside and Vista residents.”
SDBJ: What are some of the ways Tri-City uses social media in its overall marketing and communication strategy?
Byzak: “Social media is a key tool for communicating the incredible breadth of our efforts on behalf of our patients and community. Our social media campaigns focus on telling compelling stories about our people, patients, programs and partners — the kind of stories that connect.”
SDBJ: What career accomplishment are you most proud of?
Byzak: “I’m a doer. I like making things happen, particularly in areas where the challenges seem insurmountable. I’ve been extremely fortunate throughout my career to work with good, talented people to address a number of critical issues impacting our community. Whether it was providing emergency care to people in their most desperate hour or improving access to health care for vulnerable populations or preventing the onset of substance use and abuse or writing reform initiatives around behavioral health and assisted living reform, or mentoring future leaders — it’s all a source of pride.”
SDBJ: What advice would you give a young person today who is considering a career in the medical field?
Byzak: “Challenge your assumptions. There are hundreds of careers in healthcare that exist beyond physicians and nurses, although those are very important roles. Explore the multitude of careers available in the field, whether that is the broader healthcare, biotech, or social services space, or in another industry that interests you. Google search those jobs. Watch YouTube videos or visit SOCALworkforce.org to learn more about what you will actually do in that career. Conduct informational interviews. Shadow someone in that job. Do internships. See if the career that looks good on paper actually aligns with who you are and what will make you passionate about going to work every day. And once you find the career that speaks to you, pursue it aggressively. Study strong, work hard and seize every opportunity to positively impact the lives of others.”
Tri-City Medical Center
FOUNDED: 1961 (Healthcare District founded in 1957)
CEO: Steve Dietlin
HEADQUARTERS: 4002 Vista Way, Oceanside (District includes Oceanside, Carlsbad and Vista)
CONTACT: (760) 724-8411
SOCIAL IMPACT: The Tri-City Hospital Foundation has funded over $43 million in programs, services and capital needs for the healthcare district.
NOTABLE: One of the biggest employers in North County, TCMC has over 500 physicians practicing in 60 specialties.