Dr. Robert Corona, CEO Upstate University Hospital; Digging Deeper for the Greater Good

By: Sarah Hall

Upstate University Hospital CEO Dr. Robert Corona and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Amy Tucker are part of a “lead by example” campaign for the COVID-19 vaccine. Upstate was named a hub by the Governor’s office to facilitate the vaccine rollout for five counties in Central New York.

Upstate Medical University President Mantosh Dewan, MD, (center) and Hospital CEO Robert Corona,  MBA, (right) receive an update from staff during an on-site vaccination clinic. As the hub, Upstate vaccinated staff from other hospitals as well.

Photo Credit: Kathleen Froio

“When things are tough, like in a tough game, you’ve got to dig down,” said Robert Corona, DO, the CEO of Upstate University Hospital.  “You do not want to let your teammates down, so you keep digging deeper.”

Digging deeper is what Dr. Corona’s team—the thousands of doctors, nurses, technicians, lab workers and others—has been doing since the COVID-19 pandemic reached Central New York. The hospital has treated hundreds of patients who contracted the virus, implemented new tests, developed new therapies, and—as part of SUNY Upstate Medical University—was alongside the creation of one of the most accurate and affordable COVID-19 tests and the first vaccine approved for use by the FDA.

Most recently, Upstate University Hospital was named the vaccine hub for five counties in Central New York. These hubs, established by the governor’s office, are led by local hospital systems to work with the counties and community leaders and to guide the stages of the state’s vaccination plan.

Dr. Corona said Upstate has been able to handle the COVID-19 challenge because the institution has always focused on people, both those it employs and those in the community. “When our people work hard, they do it for the greater good, not because of a bonus check or hazard pay,” he said. “As a [state-regulated hospital] their compensations are negotiated at the state level, but they still do their jobs with courage and caring. I could not imagine being on any other team.”

Dr. Corona brings a range of experience to his role as CEO. He holds a doctor of osteopathic medicine degree (DO), an alternative to an MD with an equal scope of practice and licensing requirements to MDs. Among his fellow DO alumni is Dr. Kevin O’Connor, who is President Joseph Biden’s personal physician and a decorated Navy physician.

Dr. Corona’s clinical training started in neurology at Upstate, but he quickly realized his interest was in the pathology of neurological diseases. This led to a residency in anatomic pathology and fellowship in neuropathology. He also did a special fellowship in neuropathology, concentrated in neuromuscular diseases at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. That fellowship was under the direction of Dr. Joe Parisi, another Upstate alumnus, who went on to be the chief of neuropathology at the Mayo Clinic. 

In addition, he has earned an MBA from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

After his fellowship, Dr. Corona came to work at Upstate. He served as one of the region’s only neuropathologists and started Upstate’s Telemedicine and Medical Informatics Program in 1995. He then spent 16 years on the business side of medicine as chief medical officer and vice president of medical and scientific affairs at Welch Allyn. During his time there, he remained involved with Upstate and returned in 2012 to chair the department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.

At Upstate, he continues to serve as a named professor, and awards for teaching include the President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. His past positions at Upstate include chief innovation officer and vice president for business development. He also led the development and implementation of the Upstate MIND (Medical Innovation and Novel Discovery) at the CNY Biotech Accelerator.

Dr. Corona said he was drawn back to Upstate because he loved being part of a teaching hospital and was honored to be appointed to the CEO role in 2018. “I missed the unique stimulation of being in an academic medical center,” he said. “It also may sound a little unusual in referring to a place of this size, but Upstate is a family.”

In addition to the officers in his hospital C-suite, Dr. Corona says that excellent working relationships with Upstate President Mantosh Dewan, MD, and College of Medicine Dean Lawrence Chin, MD, has made his job enjoyable, even as they all face challenges from the pandemic.

“We feel like we are the go-to institution for the most complicated and complex problems,” Dr. Corona said. “I mean, imagine an institution of medium-size in a medium-sized city having such an impact on the world.”

Upstate Medical University is the region’s largest employer and is composed of four colleges; the clinical system overseen by Dr. Corona, which includes two hospital sites and a biomedical research enterprise. The COVID test called Clarifi COVID-19 was developed by the Upstate research team, led by Dr. Frank Middleton, and Quadrant Biosciences. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced in December that the test is among the most sensitive in the world in detecting the virus in its earliest stages. The saliva test is also cost-effective and easy to use, as patients can administer it themselves. The SUNY system has used the tests and Upstate’s unique pooled testing system to process up to 200,000 tests a week.

On the therapeutic side, Upstate Chief of Infectious Disease Dr. Stephen Thomas served as the coordinating principal investigator for the worldwide Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine trial. Upstate is one of the global phase-three trial locations. The vaccine was the first to be approved for use against COVID-19; the first doses were administered in December.

While COVID currently dominates the headlines, the hospital is advancing other medical care with new treatments and procedures in the fields of neurological disorders, surgery, cancer and many others.

Those innovations will help serve patients the numerous clinical services and specialty centers that are unique to Upstate, from the Cancer Center to Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital to the Comprehensive Stroke Center to the Upstate Heart Institute, and more. And because those centers are connected to a larger facility, multiple departments can address patients’ needs.

“That multidisciplinary collaboration is the huge benefit of being a teaching hospital,” Dr. Corona said. “That collective expertise means you have physicians who are at the top of their fields to discuss the cases across departments, so you get additional expert opinions. They also are teaching the next generation of the profession. That keeps everyone on the forefront of skills and knowledge. All this goes to the benefit of the patients in our community.

“The environment changes every day, and in this pandemic, it changes dramatically every day,” he said. “You have to have a tool set that you can call on depending on the environment you encounter that day. Because we have so many talented staff, we are able to optimize for the problem we are confronting.”

He’s confident Upstate’s team can overcome any challenge.

“In the hospital, I think the future is very bright,” Dr. Corona said. “We are in the midst of deploying the vaccine, and we will build upon the innovations that came with COVID-19. We have come into our own in the past couple of years, and I think we are on a flight path that is allowing us to do great things.”

In service to the mission

As a leader at SUNY Upstate Medical University, Dr. Corona is responsible for upholding Upstate’s mission and values. “Upstate’s mission is to improve the health of the communities we serve through education, biomedical research and patient care,” he said. “The hospital intersects with all parts of the mission.”

Dr. Corona said Upstate leadership relied on input from thousands of employees across education, research and patient care to develop its core values, which are to:

  • Drive innovation and discovery
  • Respect people
  • Serve our community
  • Value integrity
  • Embrace diversity and inclusion

Those values dictate everything Upstate does, he said. They also helped him establish the four strategic pillars specific to the clinical system. These are:

Quality of Care

“These are the objective measures to show that we’re always striving to care for our patients with the greatest expertise, in the safest environment,” he said

“We also reach goals for awards set by external agencies. We are accredited by DNV Healthcare, and this process helps us live up to national and international best practices.”

The Upstate Experience

“This is about the subjective experience, or how you feel when you are a patient here,” he explained. “We want to ensure that our people are courteous and that your clinical team is communicating with you in the way you need.

“The Upstate Experience also relates to the work environment for our employees. We all want our employees to feel valued, protected and safe.”

Advanced Technologies and Innovation

“When patients come to Upstate, they are expecting the most advanced and expert care—it’s a hallmark of being a teaching hospital,” he noted. “In addition to offering the latest technologies, we are also looking to be innovative in our setting. We have teams of employees who are looking at new ways to improve and fine tune how our system works.”

Sustainability and Growth

“We strive to grow strong and be sustainable for healthcare and employment, and we also want to be a system that supports a healthy planet. We are a big place, so how we handle our resources really matters,” he said. “Doing the right thing for the environment directly ties to doing the right things for the health of our patients, of our employees and for Upstate.”