A Different Role

Portrait of Richard J. Kim

Richard J. Kim 03MD 03MBA

Richard J. Kim 03MD 03MBA had a driven approach to his studies at Emory, becoming one of three students who were part of a pilot program to get MBA and MD degrees simultaneously As vice president and chief medical officer at American Express, he was going to need to keep that focused philosophy, as the company would look to him in a way he couldn’t have expected when he joined in November 2019.

“This road for me actually first began at Emory when I was an assistant professor [of medicine],” he says. “There I had my first opportunity to enter the corporate world as the global medical director for the Coca- Cola Company in 2013.”

Keeping his professorship while he took the reins at perhaps the most famous company in Atlanta, Kim realized he had a chance to truly change employees’ lives, designing programs to inspire health and wellness while also having the business acumen to look out for The Coca-Cola Company’s bottom line.

From there he became executive director of corporate health at New York-Presbyterian, where he served more than 50 Manhattan-based clients in their health needs. In 2017, he moved to Goldman Sachs as its associate medical director, managing the firm’s wellness programs, which ranged from onsite health centers to disability management. “One example was dealing with employees’ musculoskeletal conditions like lower back pain,” he says. “We had onsite physical therapy and partnered with the Hospital for Special Surgery to design unique benefits for employees to go to a physical therapist without a doctor’s prescription. We had an onsite podiatrist and orthopedic surgeon who would come once a week to schedule appointments. Reducing the barriers to care was the largest driver in reducing health care cost.”

The Coronavirus

Kim had developed a unique skill set to lead a global organization from his prior roles. By January 2020, COVID-19 was emerging as a regional threat and Kim was called on by the CEO and the executive committee to help manage the growing risk. By March, he helped pivot the company to 100% virtual, a key decision to keep the employees of American Express safe.

The pandemic would quickly change the dynamics of his job, but he had experiences that prepared him. “When I was working for Coca- Cola, in 2014 there was an Ebola outbreak and the company had three bottling plants in West Africa where the disease was prominent,” he says. “I remember consulting with Dr. Phyllis Kozarsky, an infectious disease expert and then-director of Emory’s TravelWell Clinic, in writing safety and business-continuity protocols on how to mitigate and manage risk of infection among employees and in product distribution. At Goldman Sachs, I dealt with workplace communicable diseases like tuberculosis and mumps. This on-the-job training is priceless. You glean best practices from peers and mentors on how to manage health risk and make data-driven decisions in relation to occupational health and safety.”

Kim would become a key partner at American Express, participating in town hall meetings and offering guidance to the CEO and other executives. There was no playbook on COVID and much of the risk-mitigation strategies had to be created. “I immediately worked with others in the company who were strong in analytics and started building, for example, COVID metrics and dashboards to monitor case trends, how many people were impacted, and how to adapt protocols based on local government requirements at each location. This work became the foundation in how we managed our business operations and the health of our people around the world.” As the company started to think about opening offices back up, Kim remained at the forefront. “This involved designing policies for workplace social distancing and facial coverings, COVID surveillance testing, and collaborating with government entities to offer COVID vaccines to our people,” he says. “I was tasked with the responsibility of overseeing the health and welfare of more than 60,000 employees and their family members around the world.”

Although the situation is improving in the US, he says, the status is less certain in other countries. “There are parts of the world where the vaccine isn’t available or only slowly becoming available,” he says. “I have to go about my job country by country, where there are different challenges and the pandemic is very fluid. To do this job, it’s partly about becoming comfortable with uncertainty.”

—Eric Butterman

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