San Diego Business Journal Michelle Gonzalez, president and CEO of TrueCare has deep roots in the organization. She started as a program coordinator almost 20 years ago. Before becoming CEO, she held several management positions, including chief strategy and development officer, and vice president of strategic initiatives. She was appointed president and CEO in April 2020.

The San Diego Business Journal recently had a chance to talk with her about her deep commitment to this organization that provides affordable healthcare to anyone in need. Under her leadership, TrueCare has expanded access and improved patient care.

 
You spent two decades with your company before rising to CEO, how did this personal experience help prepare you to lead the organization?

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Michelle D. Gonzalez, MPA, President & CEO, TrueCare

Over the years, I have had the distinct honor of working very closely alongside my last two predecessors. In particular, I earned the confidence of Irma Cota who served as the P&CEO for more than 20 years. Learning and growing alongside of her was some of the best hands-on training of my career. That being said, I don’t know if one could ever truly be “prepared” to assume such a critical role in the face of a world-wide pandemic.

Despite this, over the years, I had the opportunity to lead some of the organization’s most important initiatives like expanding into Riverside County as well as expanding various service lines, all while working alongside our very distinguished board of directors, and the best and brightest healthcare executives. All of this and more, has contributed to my development as a leader. I consider myself very fortunate to have such an expansive network of supporters, advisors and friends.

I’ve also had the opportunity to work and learn first-hand multiple areas of the business and that has contributed greatly to not only my extensive understanding of the interworkings of the organization, but also the firm appreciation for everyone within TrueCare. I see first-hand every day, how each individual has been strategically placed within TC and how we all play a critical role in living out our mission. It is this belief that reminds me that there is always something new to learn, and that excites me!

TrueCare changed its name from North County Health Services as part of a transformation plan last year. What exactly did that mean?

Our rebrand to TrueCare was really multi-pronged. First, the name TrueCare better reflects the compassionate, heartfelt care that we deliver to our patients. TrueCare has been a staple in the communities that we serve and it’s important that our name and public image really reflect our mission. For 50 years, our commitment to providing affordable, accessible, equitable, high-quality and compassionate care has never wavered.

Importantly, we’ve expanded outside north San Diego County into the Riverside County as well. And while we consider the county to be a great partner, we wanted to get away from being seen as a municipal or county healthcare option. TrueCare is a family of 11 state of the art health centers and our footprint has grown.

And finally, it is our firm belief that the name TrueCare embodies the passion of our Physicians, Advanced Practice Practitioners (APPs) and our workforce at large. It conveys our renewed promise to our patients and the communities that we serve; providing care for everyone from every walk of life. Health inside, welcome in.

This has been a challenging year for those in the healthcare industry, what has TrueCare learned and how do you think COVID-19 has changed the future of healthcare?

In terms of lessons learned, during the last year, several things have really stood out.

First, the dedication and resilience of our staff was exemplary. As the world was brought to its knees and fearful of the worst and our communities retreated and took cover, our TrueCare team stood strong and remained a pillar of hope and access and we confronted the pandemic head on.

Second, despite the raging pandemic, we still had to care for all our patient’s medical needs. So, within days of the stay-at-home order being declared, TrueCare successfully established a virtual health program and provided over 98,000 virtual visits before the end of 2020. So many of our patients suffer from complex, chronic health issues and while many of their needs could be deferred, that simply wasn’t the case in every instance. In particular, the need for mental and behavioral health resources was more widespread than ever. The isolation and psychological impacts, depression, anxiety, etc. impacted nearly everyone in some way or another. In 2020, the number of behavioral health patients served at TrueCare grew by 18%.  The need for access and services continues to grow and we are devoted to removing stigma, shame and resistance in accessing these critical services.

Speaking of access, this became an even more important focus over the last year. Given that most of our patients are struggling working families, we must continue to reduce barriers and make it as simple as possible for them to get the care and services that they need, when they need it.  That’s why we’ve expanded our mobile services. We’re continuing to take medical, dental and COVID testing and vaccines directly into our communities. We’re also teaming up with even more community partners and schools; we can no longer look at healthcare as one dimensional. Whole person care considers both the downstream and upstream factors and all implications- we know that we can’t do it alone. The support and partnership of our community partners is critical.

Finally, it is undeniable that the future of healthcare has been forever altered; virtual health has had a major impact on the way we deliver care. We realized efficiencies that can’t be ignored and to simply return to the way we did things before the pandemic.  Yet, even with all the recent techological advancements, we still have to maintain the heartfelt connection with each patient, without sacrificing quality or the optimal experience. At TrueCare, that is exactly what we’re striving to achieve.  

Your company’s compassion for making quality healthcare available to diverse and underserved communities is a driving force behind its mission. How are you working today to achieve this goal?

In the early 1970s, TrueCare was born out of the civil rights movement and the firm belief that everyone should have access to high-quality care- that still rings true today. Our history is deeply rooted in serving anyone in need, including our migrant communities. This ethos is core to who we are.

As a Federally Qualified Health Center, TrueCare, (also known as a Community Health Center) is very much in touch with the unique needs of our diverse communities. Serving close to 60,000 patients annually we provide medical, dental, women’s health, behavioral health, chiropractic and pharmacy, services to our patients and 96% of them are at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty level. In addition, we are proud that nearly 75% of our patients represent various racial and ethnic minority groups.

Years ago, in the early 2000s, when I worked as a program coordinator, overseeing various grant programs that were focused on providing access to much needed social (health) services, I witnessed first-hand the sense of peace that washed over families when they realized there was a safe, secure and trusted place that was not only willing, but truly honored to care for them. That still applies today.

What makes what TrueCare is doing different than so many other healthcare organizations in the San Diego area?

Like so many things, it always starts with the people. A huge component of what makes our organization so distinct is the passion that fills each individual within TrueCare; there is tremendous pride knowing that we are part of the safety net of our communities.

While continued and robust growth is very much on the horizon for TrueCare, we will not lose focus on taking care of individuals who have historically been limited in their ability to access healthcare and supporting services. Our pledge and sense of responsibility to assure equitable and inclusive treatment and access for everyone, regardless of background or walk of life.

We understand that in many ways healthcare is complicated and we’re striving to make the experience different. With our beautiful state of art and welcoming facilities, new branding, and our outstanding staff and health care providers, we want our patients to feel at home, listened to and supported.

And to achieve this, we will continue to strive to provide our patients with the best. TrueCare is proud to be the only community health center in San Diego County that utilizes OCHIN-Epic technology, the gold standard in electronic health records. We pushed forward during the pandemic and transitioned to this cutting-edge technology in order to elevate our patients’ healthcare experience.

What is your own greatest challenge as you lead TrueCare today?

What a great question! So much is challenging in this current environment. All of the standard trials you would anticipate are certainly exacerbated by the current circumstances. With on-going shortages in the workforce it is difficult to advance various strategic initiatives.. The critical need for qualified, healthcare professionals is daunting.

I am fortunate to have such a talented executive team and together, we are looking at ways to streamline our organization (even further) to be even more nimble and responsive to the needs of our patients. This is my top priority. That’s why we are focused on areas like maximizing the use of MyChart, our powerful new patient portal as well as growing community partnerships and maximizing resources like Uber Health. These may sound simple in nature, but when resources like these work as designed it creates a clear pathway to accessing care for our patients. We understand that medical care is a challenge for so many and at TrueCare, we try to demystify it while ensuring that we provide patients as many access points as possible.

Finally, this pandemic has spared no one, everyone has been affected in some way. As we look toward the future with plans to re-build, re-establish and re-engage, we are reminded that we are not entirely in the clear. Most recently, with the delta variant positive cases have started to climb and we still have work to do in vaccinating our communities. In this vein, maintaining the health, safety and physical, emotional and mental well-being of our patients and workforce continues to be paramount.

 
Michelle D. Gonzalez, MPA
President & CEO

As Chief Executive of TrueCare, Michelle Gonzalez combines a deep understanding of the challenges facing today’s nonprofit healthcare organizations with a deep and abiding commitment to the organization’s mission of providing quality healthcare regardless of life situation or ability to pay.

Michelle holds a master’s degree in public administration, a certificate in the not-for-profit management development program through the Harvard Business School, San Diego Chapter, and a green belt certification in Lean Six Sigma.