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Don Kemper: Health Hero

Healthwise Founder and CEO Don Kemper. Photo by Pete Grady.

Healthwise Founder and CEO Don Kemper. Photo by Pete Grady.

One day in 1971, a young lieutenant in the U.S. Public Health Service heard a speech that altered the course of his career, which in turn affected the way Americans think about their health today. That young lieutenant was Don Kemper, founder and CEO of the influential health information nonprofit Healthwise.

On that day, Kemper listened as Vern Wilson, administrator of the Health Services and Mental Health Administration, said that the greatest untapped resource in healthcare is the patient, and a light bulb switched on.

“I thought, ‘Well, that makes sense. Maybe I’ll spend my life trying to tap that resource,’” he says.

So he did.

Over the past 40 years, Kemper has dedicated his life to ensuring that American citizens are well informed when making decisions about their health. To that end, he’s founded Healthwise, published several books, and made a huge impact on the American public’s access to their own medical records.

Now, as he moves toward retirement this summer, Kemper can look back on a career of public service marked by a dogged persistence to improving people’s lives through information.

Early Life

The son of an oil man, Kemper was born in Rayne, Louisiana, and moved around often during his early years as his father secured leases for drilling. Eventually, the Kemper family moved to a home just a few blocks from Corpus Christi Bay, where Kemper fondly recalls spending many afternoons fishing from the pier.

When Kemper’s father was promoted to a new position in Houston, the family moved to Bellaire, a suburb of Houston, where Kemper attended “one of the best high schools in the country at the time.” As a high-school student, he ran track, edited the school yearbook, and had his first leadership experience as “head birdkeeper” for the school’s mascot.

“We had a huge papier mache cardinal and all the other schools tried to steal it,” he says. “We had a fairly rough group of kids who would protect Colonel Charlie. So that was my first real role in leadership.”

Healthwise’s Humble Beginnings

Today, instead of leading a group of high school mascot protectors, Kemper leads a group of employees in their efforts to improve Americans’ ability to make decisions about their health. Thanks to Kemper, Healthwise is known nationally, both for its efforts in pursuing its mission and for its reputation for being an employee-friendly workplace.

The organization’s mission grew out of a simple idea. When Kemper heard the speech that changed his life, he happened to have a young baby at home. Someone had given him a copy of Dr. Benjamin Spock’s book, “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care,” a how-to guide to raising children, which could be found on nearly any new parent’s bookshelf at the time.

“I thought, ‘Maybe the U.S. government should develop a medical self-care guide for every family in the U.S.’ And I, as a lowly lieutenant, tried to get the government to do that,” he says.

The project never got off the ground. Recalls Kemper: “It fell flat.”

But even as his commission in public service ended without any progress, Kemper never forgot about his idea, and after finishing his master’s degree at Georgia Tech, he enrolled in a Master of Public Health program at University of California at Berkeley. After graduation, he sent applications all over the country, and got a response from a man in Boise. He says he had to look the city up on a map, but when he flew out for the interview, he knew he’d found the place for him.

“My prospective employer met me in cowboy boots in a pickup truck,” he says. “He had just come back from a meeting with the governor, and I thought, ‘You can get things done here.’”

He took the job, and spent several years working for Health Systems Incorporated, an experimental nonprofit organization focused on improving healthcare.

He never lost sight of his goal to improve access to health information, so he created a series of community workshops aimed at helping citizens understand how to take care of themselves and their families. The workshops eventually turned into a TV and radio program, and finally, he was also able to bring his original vision to life, creating the “Healthwise Handbook” self-care guide, which was eventually so popular it could be found in one of every 10 households in the United States.

That self-published book produced the venture capital for Healthwise, and allowed Kemper and his team to build the Healthwise Knowledge Base, a comprehensive information repository for consumer health information that can now be found mostly online. Websites like WebMD.com and many insurance companies license the information from Healthwise, and the repository has been accessed more than 1.75 billion times, according to a ticker in the Healthwise lobby.

Cultivating a Culture

Kemper recalls the early days at Healthwise, when it had maybe five employees. At the time, he had jokingly hung a poster in his office of a very large orangutan with the words, “If I want your opinion, I’ll beat it out of you.” Though this was never his true leadership philosophy, Kemper says he realized after a while that he was probably sending the wrong message.

Today, as you walk into Healthwise, very different physical symbols of the organization’s culture greet you. Anyone entering the building passes through three moon gates that highlight the three pillars of Healthwise’s culture: respect, teamwork and doing the right thing. (Kemper jokes that visitors are sometimes tempted to walk around the moon gates instead of through them, if they don’t feel like being respectful that day.)

Though Kemper credits his wife, Molly Mettler, senior vice president of mission at Healthwise, with developing the culture, his employees say it embodies Kemper’s personality, too.

“Some have said that Healthwise is a reflection of Don,” says Pat Truman, Healthwise editor. “For me, it’s true. Healthwise is smart and funny, friendly and caring, passionate and compassionate, careful and adventurous. Don is, too.”

Kemper says respect is a gift to his employees, not something that must be earned, and Healthwise’s leadership stresses the importance of achieving goals through collaboration. Equally important is Healthwise’s insistence that employees are focused on doing the right thing.

“We tell people, if you do something for a client, for a supplier, for a coworker or for yourself because you think it’s the right thing to do, we’ll back you up,” he says. “We give people the autonomy to do the right thing, and that makes such a difference.”

In addition to trust and respect, employees also have access to gyms, healthy snacks and generous health benefits, and meetings are often held while walking outside rather than sitting in conference rooms. They can even bring their dogs to work.

This culture has won Healthwise countless awards, including the American Psychological Association’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award, and inclusion as one of The Wall Street Journal’s 10 Top Small Businesses.

These awards, and Kemper’s reputation, have generated buzz from many places.

“I know of no other CEO in the Treasure Valley who has had more influence, not just locally but nationally and internationally,” says Jim Everett, retired CEO of Treasure Valley Family YMCA and 2011 CEO of Influence. “He is a master at building a team and an aligned culture. Employee engagement, retention and joy are unmatched. The commitment to the mission is inspiring.”

Healthwise Today and Tomorrow

Though it began with just three employees and a few thousand dollars, Healthwise now employs about 280 people, with an operating budget of about $35 million. But despite its growth and influence, the organization has stayed true to its original values.

The secret, Kemper says, is the gift of a simple mission. Healthwise’s singular focus is on helping people make better health decisions, and this focus helps Kemper and the rest of its leaders stay aligned.

“That gives a lens for looking at the world, so all the changes in policy and technology are viewed from that fairly simple perspective,” he says.

Kemper humbly credits much of the success of Healthwise to the ability to hire smart, passionate people and stand back while they do their work.

“We’ve been able to hire people who are good thinkers, who get things done,” he says. “My job is to rally them around ideas when the time is right.”

But his employees say he does much more than that.

“Don is a leader, CEO and visionary who walks the talk,” says Jim Giuffre, president and chief operating officer of Healthwise, who was one of Kemper’s first employees. “He is humble yet confident about his achievements, and uncompromising when it comes to fairness in treating people with dignity, respect and TLC.”

Another of Kemper’s defining philosophies is moving ideas to action.

“There are thinkers, and there are doers,” he says. “Until you can connect the two things, that doesn’t really create value. Action and vision together can change the world.”

Kemper also believes in looking around the corner, thinking about how changes in the world at large will affect Healthwise and its mission. This ability to see what’s coming next is one of the qualities that sets him apart from his peers.

“Don Kemper is a visionary – for his organization and for his industry,” says Nancy Napier, who has known Kemper for almost 15 years and has studied Healthwise as part of her role as executive director of the Centre for Creativity and Innovation at Boise State University. “He’s consistently identified, and often been able to act upon, trends that many others miss or do not see until much later.”

For example, Kemper was able to foresee how the Internet would affect the way people access and use information, and focused efforts to moving the information from the handbooks to an online domain. He also led the charge for including health education in electronic medical records, so that doctors can share important information with patients when filling out prescriptions.

Looking forward, Kemper says he senses two main shifts in the future for Healthwise today. The first is the increasing importance on pre-visit information gathering, when patients become educated about their condition and what questions they should ask before visiting the doctor.

The second is the concept of the social determinance of health, or the factors that affect people’s health, such as exercise, healthy habits, and support from friends and family. He believes the future of Healthwise includes finding ways to combine the social determinance of health with healthcare, encouraging doctors and other health teams to inquire about housing, food availability and other factors that affect the patient’s health in broader ways.

While trying to predict the future could be a scary job for some people, Kemper says he doesn’t have any trouble sleeping at night.

“I’m not a worrier,” he says. “Life just comes and you deal with it as you get it. If you follow the basic principles of trying to do the right thing, being respectful and looking at your teammates to get things done, it all works out.”

Wanderlust

When he’s not crusading for better access to health information, Kemper enjoys spending time with his five children and four grandchildren. He and Mettler, who plans to retire with him this summer, enjoy traveling together. They’ve traveled all over the world, and they’re headed to Machu Picchu this spring, then to Scotland after their retirement this summer. They plan to spend six months at the Findhorn Foundation, an intentional community that focuses on self-knowledge and sustainability.

“That’s going to be a chance for me, for the first time ever, to have enough time just to work on myself and how my life is,” he says.

Back in Idaho, he enjoys hiking with Molly and their dog Tuva. Those hikes sometimes take him to the foothills, where one of the trails now bears his name – his employees petitioned the city last year to name one of the trails Kemper’s Ridge Trail.

And so, in many ways, Kemper has made his mark on the city he had to look up on a map 40 years ago.

 

About Stephanie Schaerr Hansen