Ronald R. Peterson, president emeritus of the Johns Hopkins Health System.
Ronald R. Peterson, president emeritus of the Johns Hopkins Health System. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

In the early 1980s, shortly after Ronald R. Peterson had been dispatched to transform the old Baltimore City Hospital into the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, Dr. John R. Burton came to him with a proposal. Dr. Burton, then the head of the Division of Geriatric Medicine, was looking for funding to study a “hospital at home” concept. The idea was that when patients arrived with pneumonia or heart disease or certain other conditions, instead of admitting them, the hospital would arrange to care for them at home.

“We were in the room with the financial gurus, and I went through the explanation of why it was important, why it was the future, and I asked for $100,000 or something,” Dr. Burton says. “Ron thought about four seconds and said yes. The chief financial officer at that moment rose about 30 feet out of his chair. He said, ‘Are you saying you would take a patient we would normally admit and collect a fee, and we’re going to not admit them, pay for an ambulance, nurses, medication and all the other things they need? Do you see the economics of that?’”


Mr. Peterson’s reply: “Yes, I do.”

The highlights of Mr. Peterson’s history at Johns Hopkins would put him on a short list of the most influential figures in the history of the hospital and health system. He served as president of both for 20 years — a job so big two people now do it — and during his career, he not only integrated Bayview into the Hopkins fold (rebuilding its physical campus and services in the process while shoring up its finances) but he also led the creation of what is now Johns Hopkins Community Physicians, the acquisition of Howard County General Hospital and Sibley Memorial Hospital and spearheaded the construction of two massive patient care towers at the main Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore, among other things.

But what’s truly remarkable is the degree to which he foresaw the changes that would occur in American health care system years — even decades — before they took place. The hospital at home program, which is now an international model, was at the forefront of the integration of health care that is only now coming into full flower in Maryland through the state’s new system of global budgeting. What Mr. Peterson saw then (and the finance chief did not) was that everyone is better served if we better coordinate services across the continuum of care, and by doing so, we can improve health and lower costs at the same time.

“Lots of hospitals have coalesced to form health systems,” says Dr. Redonda Miller, who succeeded Mr. Peterson as president of Hopkins Hospital. “He had a broader view. … Johns Hopkins Community Physicians and the home care group are real jewels in tackling the whole continuum of care for our patients.”

But Mr. Peterson’s legacy at Hopkins goes far beyond his contributions to the evolution of the medical system or even the broader system of health care in Maryland and beyond. He was also a crucial moral force in directing the institution he led toward honoring its obligations to the community in which it was based.

“I began to recognize a couple of decades ago, here we were in East Baltimore, one of the best academic medical centers in the world,” Mr. Peterson says. “Yet the health care outcomes of the people in the community were among the worst. That gave me pause about whether we were doing enough.”

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Then-Mayor Martin O’Malley made Mr. Peterson chairman of Baltimore’s Workforce Investment Board, and he began to recognize that one of the most crucial things he could do was to match the needs of people trying to find work with the needs of employers. He began to orient Hopkins toward providing opportunities for those who lacked them, and those most in need were people returning from the penal system. Under his leadership, Hopkins began hiring scores of former inmates every year, an effort that has been truly life-changing for the community around Hopkins Hospital. Mr. Peterson says he came to view that effort not as ancillary to Hopkins’ health care mission but central to it.

“This was really recognition that if you want to improve the health and well-being of people in the inner city, it’s not just addressing their disease, it’s looking at what are the causes of their problems in the first place,” Mr. Peterson says.

Those who have worked with him throughout his career say he was able to accomplish all he did because he kept his focus on the patients Hopkins serves and the employees who make it possible, that he paired an ability to see the big picture with an attention to detail.

“The fiber of Ron’s mental makeup are incredible integrity and vision,” Dr. Burton says. “You had complete trust and confidence in him. .. He was the right guy in the right place at the right time.”