McCullers Striving for New Model of Pediatric Care

By Jennifer Johnson Backer

Now in his second year as chairman of the Department of Pediatrics for the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and pediatrician-in-chief for Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, Dr. Jon McCullers has been slowly building the children’s hospital into what he calls a nationally recognized academic health center.

Dr. Jon McCullers is now in his second year as chairman of the Department of Pediatrics for University of Tennessee Health Science Center and pediatrician-in-chief for Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital.

(Lisa W. Buser)

“We don’t just want to be just a hospital that provides excellent clinical care,” he explained. “We want to take that next step and find better ways to deliver care – that’s the academic and research side.”

In the last two years, McCullers estimates UTHSC and Le Bonheur have hired about 40 researchers and clinicians. He hopes to add another 40 in the next three to four years, eventually bringing the total to nearly 200 over a five-year arc.

McCullers, who also is a full faculty member of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, is an accomplished researcher who has carved out an expertise studying various aspects of flu vaccines. The questions he strives to answer are basic: How do you build a new flu vaccine that works better than the ones we have now? They are practical: Why don’t people get flu vaccines? And they are global: How do you prevent global flu pandemics?

McCullers brings that translational research background to his new roles at Le Bonheur and UTHSC. Tasked with hiring academic faculty members, in addition to recruiting talented clinical faculty, McCullers said academic researchers tend to push the envelope on finding better ways to deliver care, rather than focusing on delivering care that meets best practice models.

“If you look at different ways you measure children’s hospitals across the country, it becomes more and more about this academic side because there are so many excellent clinicians all over the place,” he said. “Those that really differentiate themselves and make a difference are the ones that are looked at on the national stage as being among the elite. That’s where we want to be.”

McCullers said the goal is to build a world-class research faculty that changes the way pediatric care is delivered both in Memphis and across the nation.

“It’s all about research that is applied that will make a different in the community,” he said.

Le Bonheur and UTHSC want to be at the forefront of developing new ways to address the widespread health disparities that exist in Memphis. He calls the city the “epicenter” of chronic pediatric problems like obesity, asthma and pediatric problems tied to premature birth. While Le Bonheur and UTHSC already have nationally recognized specialties like pediatric neurosciences and cardiology – McCullers is working on building new programs that address chronic pediatric health issues that are widespread in Memphis – especially amongst the low-income.

“Pediatric asthma is the leading diagnosis at admission to this hospital,” he said. “It’s clearly an access to care issue … that means making sure that kids are properly cared for in the community, rather than just an acute visit in the emergency department.”

Building national recognition helps hospitals recruit the best physicians and researchers, which in turn helps bring in more research and philanthropy funding, he said.

“If you are a scientist or physician, you want to work in this sort of environment because it’s more fun,” he said. “You are doing things that are more interesting. You are still doing things to help kids, but you aren’t just helping one patient – when you develop a new model of care you help patients all over the world.”

McCullers wears a lot of hats in his new roles. In addition to managing the academic side of the faculty and recruiting the best talent, as pediatrician in chief, he also is the public face of the hospital and is charged with the strategic direction of Le Bonheur. That includes managing all the physicians on staff at the hospital – from pediatricians to radiologists and surgeons.

“The fun thing about this new role is that it is such a challenge,” McCullers said. “There are a lot of things I’ve never done before.”

That includes everything from meeting community leaders and Fortune 500 executives, working with local and national legislators, lobbying the governor and brushing up on MBA books to better understand the business operations of the hospital.

Using his relationships at Le Bonheur, St. Jude and UTHSC, McCullers also has successfully built new collaborative efforts at the three institutions. The three institutions have regularly scheduled meetings to align both research goals and community outreach efforts.

Right now, finding new ways to address health disparities remain at the forefront of his efforts.

“It’s really the socioeconomic status in Memphis,” he said. “We have too many kids that live in poverty. We know how to care for children, but we are not able to deliver that care because of societal barriers.”

McCullers said that means interjecting UTHSC and Le Bonheur into the continuum of care, including the delivery of primary care.

“You can throw a lot of money at things and still not fix them,” he said. “Our job is to find ways to deliver care in which the child is not just an acute episode, but a child we are going to deal with along the way. Hopefully, 10 years from now, they are going to have a very different experience than they do now.”