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The CHCF Blog

Zuckerberg San Francisco General Continues 166-Year Tradition of Opening Doors to All

Sandra R. Hernández, President & Chief Executive Officer
Sandra Hernandez
Sandra R. Hernández

I'll never forget how I felt when I first visited San Francisco General Hospital more than 30 years ago. I was an East Coast medical student on a visiting rotation, and the effect on me was immediate: I was inspired and knew I would be happy working there. When I learned the next year that I would be doing my medical residency there, I felt as if I'd hit the jackpot. The hospital represented not only the best of science, but the best of public service. Since opening in 1850 to cope with a Gold Rush cholera outbreak, the hospital has helped train generations of doctors caring for immigrants, refugees, and newcomers of every stripe speaking many languages.

San Francisco's residents, elected officials, and business leaders have long recognized the hospital's vital role in improving public health, providing broad access to coverage and care, and serving as the city's only Level 1 trauma center. They have demonstrated that understanding by providing tremendous financial, philanthropic, and political support.

The new San Francisco General Hospital inpatient tower (Photo by Avram Goldstein)

That's why it is beyond gratifying to know that inpatients are scheduled to arrive this weekend at the new nine-story patient tower adjacent to the old hospital. The opening of the 284-bed hospital culminates a brilliant community-wide effort to replace the 1970-vintage hospital with a state-of-the-art, seismically sound, fully equipped facility. It will be known as Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, and it may be America's most extraordinary public works project dedicated to improving the health of the underserved. The hospital is a linchpin in the city's health care infrastructure, and it offers reassurance that hospital staff members, researchers, and trainees will spread their knowledge and progressive outlook to the wider world. It's also worth noting that the project was built within its budget and on time.

Original artwork appears in many public areas of the hospital (Photo by Avram Goldstein)The new building was financed by an $887.4-million bond approved by San Francisco voters in 2008 with astonishing support (84% voted to approve). Few votes are that much of a landslide! Organized opposition was nonexistent, and many private donors and organizations stepped up to provide more than $150 million in additional funds to outfit the hospital with cutting-edge equipment and patient-friendly furnishings that enhance care. The largest private donors were Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, who practices at "The General." The couple contributed $75 million.

Whimsical heart-shaped sculptures in amusing poses appear on the grounds (Photo by Avram Goldstein)If you get a chance to walk through the new hospital's colorful entrance hall, visit the 90% of patient rooms that are private, see public spaces adorned with original art by local artists, or view the spectacular 360-degree views of the city from the rooftop garden, it will be difficult not to be impressed.

The new building is a powerful expression of San Francisco's commitment to providing top-notch care to the uninsured and people enrolled in Medi-Cal, who compose the majority of the hospital's 102,000 inpatients each year. Eligibility expansions in the Affordable Care Act have meant that Medi-Cal now serves one of every three Californians, and public hospitals like The General will take a leading role in caring for them.

The research enterprise is impressive. In the early 1980s, the hospital was ground zero in the AIDS epidemic. The poorly understood virus stalked the frightened city as researchers and clinicians searched for answers. The nation's medical establishment turned to San Francisco for help in understanding the disease and developing more effective ways to treat it. Through the years, researchers based at the hospital have made major contributions in the fight against HIV, tuberculosis, and other health dangers. Today, The General hosts cutting-edge research funded by more than $140 million in grants each year. The focus has expanded to other public health concerns, including the effects of excessive sugar consumption.

Patient rooms, mostly private, are arrayed around colorful nursing station hubs (Photo by Avram Goldstein)Throughout my training, into the '90s when I served as director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health and oversaw the hospital, and right through today as CHCF collaborates with colleagues and administrators there, my enthusiasm for The General has never waned. I have always been deeply moved by the hospital staff's esprit de corps. Physicians, nurses, residents, researchers, public health experts, and students are everywhere on the bustling campus, helping the community and advancing science.

Patients and families have access to a rooftop garden with spectacular views of the city (Photo by Avram Goldstein)

Many of us who worked there made careers in the public policy arena. One of them is the brand new chief executive of the hospital, Susan Ehrlich, who started as a planner in the San Francisco Department of Public Health before becoming an MD. In a short time she rose from staff physician at San Mateo Medical Center to CEO, and she led that hospital for the last seven years. We are so proud to count Susan among the more than 400 graduates of the CHCF Health Care Leadership Program. She is now one of its biggest supporters.

It's a privilege for me to live in a city with such a long history of welcoming all ethnic, religious, racial, and cultural communities and of being so respectful of and politically committed to social progress. I have always felt I could go to any part of the city without it mattering that I happen to be a woman, or a Latina, or a gay person.

Now with the new hospital building opening its doors, I have yet another reason to love San Francisco.

The new lobby's warmer vibe with colossal works of art and colorful design touches (Photo by Avram Goldstein)

About Sandra

Dr. Sandra R. Hernández has been president and CEO of the California Health Care Foundation since January 2014. CHCF is an independent foundation with assets of more than $700 million, headquartered in Oakland, California, and dedicated to making health care work for all Californians, especially low-income and underserved populations.