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Posted October 17, 2013
Dr. Brigitta Mueller: A Passionate New Leader of Quality and Safety at All Children’s Hospital

Dr. Brigitta MuellerThe road Dr. Brigitta Mueller has followed to All Children's Hospital has been marked by some unexpected detours along the way. But ultimately, it has led her to precisely the place she wants to be as the new Vice President of Medical Affairs and Chief Safety Officer.

Every formative stop in her career seems to have been a stepping stone to the hospital where quality and safety ranks as the No. 1 priority on its pathway to the top.

"I'm very passionate about patient safety and quality and have been involved in not only pediatric hematology and oncology - both locally and nationally - but also at the hospital and university level," she says. "I'm very excited to now be here. I see myself for the next 10 to 15 years really focusing on quality and safety - and I view this as a unique opportunity to do that."

Dr. Mueller brings to All Children's a wealth of knowledge from the largest free-standing pediatric hospital in the United States, Texas Children's in Houston, where she worked  the past 12 years as Director for Clinical Operations, Quality and Safety for the hospital's  Cancer and Hematology Centers. In addition, she was Clinic Chief, Section of Hematology-Oncology and Chief Safety Officer for the Cancer Center and also served on the faculty of Baylor College of Medicine as a tenured Professor of Pediatrics. 

Her collective experience makes her an ideal fit as the leader tasked with overseeing a full spectrum of quality and safety initiatives and promoting interdisciplinary collaboration - a pursuit further underscored during National Healthcare Quality Week Oct. 20-26.

"She will play a key role in our focus on a culture of safety, physician engagement and academic transformation," says Jonathan Ellen, M.D., ACH President and Physician-in-Chief.

Yet her journey to such a key post in St. Petersburg has taken Dr. Mueller through some interesting twists and turns that might easily have moved her in a different direction. The native of Switzerland started out doing her pediatric training at the Children's Hospital of the University of Berne in Switzerland, followed by a fellowship in pediatric hematology/oncology at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

Her section chief at the time, Dr. Philip Pizzo, was interested in patients with compromised immune systems, leading to the creation of a busy practice in the late 1980s and early 1990s that saw children infected with HIV. Dr. Pizzo spent 23 years at the National Cancer Institute as head of the infectious disease section, chief of the pediatric department and acting director of the Division of Clinical Services. At the time, the country was just becoming aware of the AIDs epidemic, and Dr. Pizzo and his team were at the forefront of creating new treatments and methods of preventing the spread of AIDs in children.

"We did a lot of the phase I studies of the new drugs," she explains. "For many of the drugs that are now approved, we actually did the first studies in children and brought the drugs to FDA approval. Being part of that team, I was very much involved in clinical research for pediatric HIV disease."

Dr. Mueller remained in the position for eight years and when Dr. Pizzo moved to Boston Children's Hospital, he asked her to join him there. She jumped at the chance, but then came a surprise.

"Unbeknownst to both of us," she recalls, "they didn't have any faculty openings for someone with my kind of background."

But rather than let herself be sidetracked, Dr. Mueller turned the bump in the road into a new opportunity. She had been looking for a mentor in the Harvard medical system and found such person in Dr. Orah Platt, a woman and full professor at Harvard Medical School.

"I asked her if she would be my mentor and she said, 'Certainly,' but she needed a clinical investigator to help with sickle cell disease," recounts Dr. Mueller. "I said that coming from Switzerland, I didn't know a lot about sickle cell disease but why not?' "

Dr, MuellerShe poured herself into the new job and stayed at Boston Children's for four years, immersing herself in the clinical work of hematology, oncology, bone marrow transplant and especially sickle cell disease.

That work gave Dr. Mueller an expertise in sickle cell disease and became a springboard to her next position. She moved to Houston and created the Texas Children's Sickle Cell Center from the ground up. "when I first joined, the team followed some 500 patients with the disease but didn't do any research," she says. "My job was to bring in clinical research, which we did. We conducted several drug studies and participated in several local, national and international protocols. Now the center follows more 1,100 sickle cell patients, and is one of the largest in the U.S."

As time went on, she started wearing more than one hat, becoming the head of the hospital's solid tumor group, developing yet special expertise in liver and germ cell tumors. At the same time she became Clinic Chief for the Hematology/Oncology section at Texas Children's. But another change in direction was on the horizon. Some six years ago, Dr. Mueller was asked to take on even more administrative responsibility. There was only one problem.

"I realized that I didn't really know anything about administration," she says. "So I decided to go back and earn a master's degree in health care management from the Harvard School of Public Health. That's a non-residential program that you do over two years, and it's specifically for physician leaders. So it was a wonderful group of peers who were dealing with the same issues."

The additional education proved invaluable as Dr. Mueller went from clinic chief to taking on responsibility for all clinical operations at the Texas Children's Cancer and Hematology Centers, which has the largest pediatric hematology-oncology program in the United States. She was involved in many different safety and quality initiatives, both for the section as well as for the hospital, served as the chair of the transfusion committee and was involved in various strategic planning enterprises, such as the implementation of the electronic medical records system.

What's more, Dr. Mueller created and chaired the Chemotherapy and Safety Committee and the Clinical Practice Committee, working with physicians, ARNPs, nurses, pharmacists and nurse educators to establish more than 35 evidence-based clinical pathways and over 300 order sets now used throughout the institution to treat hematology-oncology problems.

In 2012, Dr. Mueller was named Associate Medical Director for Quality with the Texas Children's Health Plan. A managed care Medicaid plan, it focuses on quality and patient safety as well as efforts to establish new models of care delivery aligned with accountable care and population health. She did that while serving on the Board of Trustees of the American Society of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology and on the Executive Committee of the Section for Hematology/Oncology of the American Academy of Pediatrics. She's also the author of 84 peer-reviewed scientific publications and 30 book chapters.

In spite of her achievements, Dr. Mueller felt the need for a new challenge, if only she could find the right one. She began looking into potential new jobs over the past few years. In one instance, she even became a finalist for a chair position at another institution tied to a residency program.

"I understand how important it is to have good residency programs," she says, "but it's not something that makes me excited every day - to make sure everybody passes the board, fulfills their ACGME requirements, and all that. I'm really passionate about improving safety and creating an environment where people can provide quality health care and really push the field forward."

With that in mind, Dr. Mueller began focusing the next turn of her career on jobs related to quality and safety. And as it happened, her occupational goal coincided perfectly with the top-tier, quality and safety vision outlined for All Children's by Dr. Ellen.

"This opportunity came along," she says, "and it just turned out to be ideal."

Several factors made All Children's an appealing choice for her, beyond a shared pursuit of quality and safety excellence. First, engineering change in a large institution such as Texas Children's was difficult due to its size. "But All Children's is smaller and this is a real visionary group here," she states. "So I think to implement changes and make an impact will be easier here. We can be the leaders where others will follow instead."

Second, Dr. Mueller was excited about ACH's connection to Hopkins, specifically the Armstrong Institute of Patient Safety and Quality. "That was a very strong draw for me," she says. "It's really wonderful to work with them and learn from them."

After a dozen years in the southern part of the country, Dr. Mueller imagined that her next step would take her back to the northeast, given her fondness for the region in which her career began. But the road had another surprise in store, leading to the West Coast of Florida - and a chance to help lead All Children's on its pathway to the top.