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VOL. 9 | NO. 27 | Saturday, July 2, 2016

Changing of the Guard

Memphis growing a deeper bench of talent across health care industry

By Andy Meek

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Methodist University Hospital neurosurgeon Andre Belayev begins a procedure to place a stint inside a patient's brain to repair an aneurysm.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Michael Ugwueke’s office at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare is a long way from his childhood years in war-torn Nigeria.

His earliest days in a country ravaged by civil war and the loss of a younger brother are part of the reason he eventually decided to pursue a career in medicine.

Today, he’s the president and chief operating officer at Methodist, in line to take over from Gary Shorb as CEO at year’s end.


He’s also one example of a force quietly reshaping the health care industry in Memphis, producing a shift in the ranks of everything from hospitals to clinics and organizations in between. Call it a changing of the guard, an influx of new talent at all levels – from the corner offices occupied by executives like Ugwueke to administrators and all the researchers flocking to the city’s labs, bringing fresh eyes to health care administration, patient services and potentially groundbreaking research.

Attrition, retirements, new additions – they’re all part of the routine at any place of employment, in any industry. Memphis’ health care community, though, is seeing a lot of it all at once right now.

Shorb, for example, told the Methodist board earlier this year that he’s finally set his long-expected retirement date and will step down at the end of the year. That will move Ugwueke into the top job at the nearly 100-year-old hospital system.

In 2012, Ugwueke was named one of the “Top 25 Minority Executives in Healthcare” by the publication Modern Healthcare. Over the last 30 years, he’s also held key leadership roles across health care organizations in Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; Chicago; and Sarasota, Fla.

Ugwueke came to Memphis in 2007 to run Methodist South Hospital. In 2014, he added the role of president to his title, an addition that made him focused on the operational side of the Methodist system in collaboration with the CEOs of the system’s hospitals and ancillary service areas.

"Michael's extensive background in health care and the breadth of his strategic planning makes him the ideal person to step in and lead Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare,” Methodist board chairman Alan Graf told The Memphis News.

He’s also never forgotten his humble roots, Graf went on, when as a college student from Nigeria he came to the U.S. for his education in health care. And he’s committed to the Methodist mission of providing quality health care that’s also accessible to everyone who needs it, Graf said.



Meanwhile, other new arrivals and hires are adding quality providers across Memphis’ health care landscape.

Lisa Cox Schafer, the new chief nursing officer at Regional One Health, was hired at the end of May. She’ll lead patient care services throughout the system, including inpatient, outpatient and emergency nursing, as well as pharmacy, respiratory and dialysis services.

She relocated to Memphis with her husband, Duane, an oral pathologist who recently joined the University of Tennessee Health Science Center faculty after completing a 30-year career with the U.S. Navy. Schafer herself has worked in nursing management and leadership roles for more than 30 years in academic medical centers and community hospitals.

Most recently, she served as the vice president and chief nursing and operations executive for a 500-bed, two-campus hospital in Scripps Health System in San Diego.

Also at Regional One, there’s a new “innovation” leader in place.


Longtime Memphis entrepreneur Scott Vogel is leading a new Center for Innovation at the hospital system. It’s an incubator for ideas that’s the product of Regional One president and CEO Dr. Reginald Coopwood telling Vogel he wants to build a startup environment inside the hospital.

The resulting center is built on a collaboration involving Regional One Health employees, physicians, outside entrepreneurs and others, all exploring new ideas around cutting costs, improving efficiency and improving health outcomes.

The center is also leaving no stone unturned in its quest to find breakthrough ideas. A form on its website, in fact, asks for that very thing. (“Send us your brilliant idea,” reads the form at the bottom of the site, at innovation.regionalonehealth.org.)


Over at Saint Francis, the hospital system recently announced Dr. Audrey Gregory as its new chief executive in Memphis.

She is responsible for overseeing all areas of operations at Saint Francis Hospital-Memphis and Saint Francis Hospital-Bartlett. Garry Gause, CEO of Tenet Healthcare’s southern region, said Gregory’s experience “and her interpersonal skills” made her the perfect person to lead the organization’s hospitals in the area.

Among her career highlights, in 2011 she was promoted to chief operating officer at St. Francis Hospital-Memphis, where she was a member of the executive leadership team and was responsible for day-to-day operations, including important medical, surgical, quality and ancillary services at the 519-bed facility. Three years later, she was promoted to CEO at Tenet’s Placentia-Linda Hospital in Placentia, Calif.

Gregory was born in Jamaica and moved to the U.S. for college. Her educational credentials include a Ph.D. in global leadership, concentrating in corporate and organizational management.

Memphis hospitals like Methodist and other health care organizations are being reshaped by a kind of changing of the guard - a shift in their ranks that’s seeing an abundance of new executives at the moment as well as new talent and new researchers coming in, bringing fresh eyes to the work and to health care innovation in the city.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

“The best way to characterize all this, I think, is that this city has a deep and growing bench of talent,” said Memphis Bioworks Foundation president and executive director Dr. Steve Bares. “If you go back and look at it from that perspective – all health care organizations have been building and growing their talent pool. We’re blessed with bringing new talent in, and with new talent comes new ideas.

“With physicians and executives coming here from multiple states sometimes, they also come with a different view of what innovation looks like,” Bares said. “How do we really begin to tie our innovation ecosystem to the new wealth of talent and to our local clinical care enterprises? That is the opportunity we have before us.”



Other new arrivals in Memphis include Dr. Mark Heulitt, who will be the new medical director of the pediatric intensive care unit at the Spence and Becky Wilson Baptist Children's Hospital.

He was formerly a pediatric intensivist at Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock.

"In every career, an opportunity arises to do something to make a difference,” Heulitt said. “As a pediatric intensivist for the past 26 years, I saw a hospital that offered me the opportunity to develop a highly advanced PICU to meet the needs of the children of Memphis and the surrounding areas. Baptist is an outstanding organization and is offering the support I need to make this opportunity a success.”

The 12-bed pediatric intensive care unit at the hospital is scheduled to open in December. It’s the latest addition to Baptist's growing pediatric services, according to Kevin Hammeran, administrator and CEO of the Children's Hospital and Baptist Memorial Hospital for Women.

Baptist says the addition of the pediatric intensive care unit will be a natural place to transition those patients who require an extra level of care. And that will help alleviate the need to transfer patients elsewhere, which can be disruptive to children and families.

“My goal is to create a PICU that supplements the quality care already offered in Memphis, to make sure no critically ill child will ever have to leave Memphis to receive the care that a child deserves,” Heulitt said.


Baptist also recently named Brian Welton as CEO and administrator of the hospital it is building in Crittenden County. The hospital system committed to build and operate a $25 million hospital there that will open in early 2018.

Welton came to Baptist as a Frank S. Groner Administrative Fellow. After completing his fellowship, he served as an assistant administrator at Baptist Golden Triangle in Mississippi for a year and a half. From there, he became an operations director for Baptist Medical Group, where he spent a year and a half managing physician offices in Columbus, Miss., and in Memphis.

He’ll continue in his current role with Baptist as he transitions to administrator closer to the completion of the new Crittenden County hospital.

Yet another example of outside talent that is improving health care provided in Memphis is Dr. Chester Brown, who recently joined Le Bonheur as its Genetics Division chief. He’ll also serve as a professor with the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

Brown comes to Memphis from Baylor College of Medicine, where he served for 20 years as a faculty member. He’s spent much of his career focused on studying how genes control lean and fat body mass, and more recently has studied how host genomic factors influence HIV and tuberculosis progression in African children.

“Recruiting (Dr. Brown) is really a game-changer for us,” Dr. Jon McCullers, Le Bonheur’s pediatrician-in-chief, told The Memphis News. “We’re rapidly moving toward the genomics era where clinical decision-making will be based on knowledge about a person's genetic makeup and environmental exposures. Dr. Brown brings a wealth of genomics experience from one of the leaders in this new field of precision, or personalized, medicine. He’ll also complement our pediatric obesity program due to his specific research interests on the genetic basis of obesity.”

While these and other additions are raising the stature of health care in Memphis, Bares said a primary asset can’t be overlooked.

“Anything we can do to grow our base of clinical care or raise the numbers and level of talent in this community – that’s a direct benefit in terms of how patients are treated here,” he said.

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