January 10, 2022

Growing together in 2022

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On January 1, I officially assumed the roles of CEO of UAB Health System and CEO of the UAB/Ascension St. Vincent’s Alliance, while continuing to serve in the capacity of Dean of the UAB Heersink School of Medicine.

Leading in this way is one of the greatest honors of my career. From a young age, I knew I wanted to practice medicine, but more than that, I wanted to make a difference in the lives of other people.

When I was a teenager, I witnessed my Uncle Leroy, a physician, make a major impact in the life of a man with an aortic stenosis murmur. I’ll never forget the appreciative gratitude the patient had for my uncle—not just because of the diagnosis, but because he was seen and heard in one of his darkest moments. Observing my uncle’s compassion for his patient has fueled my drive and purpose ever since.

The structural change of our clinical enterprise’s leadership from two roles to one comes from the significant growth we have experienced in the past few years. When Dr. Will Ferniany began considering retirement, he met with me, President Ray Watts, Dr. Tony Jones, and several others to strategically think through the best path forward. As our peer institutions have done, it made sense for UAB to consolidate the roles of CEO of UAB Health System and Dean of the Heersink School of Medicine to one person. A singular leader can fuse the interests of all groups at our enterprise and take a thoughtful approach to finances, operations, and outcomes of both worlds.

Throughout my career, I have been passionate about clinical research and education. I have been the medical student, the trainee, the researcher, the physician, the teacher, and the administrative leader. I know the pressure and eagerness that comes in those early years of medical school. I remember the opposing feelings of motivation and strain felt during training years. To this day, I still experience the privilege and the weight of the operating room, fighting for a patient’s life. I identify with the researcher in their lab, stressed but only minutes away from their next discovery. I know the daily duties of the academic and administrative worlds.

While a patient-centered focus has always been at the forefront of my career, my appreciation and interest in the health care system itself has steadily grown over time. As Dean of the Heersink School of Medicine for the past eight years, I have had visibility into our health system through my ongoing partnership with Dr. Ferniany. Since day one of my career at UAB, I’ve held the same outlook and attitude of our health system as I hold now: desiring its success. So, while my title may change, my values will not.

The CEO/Dean model is an operationalized strategy that has been successful for every AMC that has instituted it. We are not the first AMC to do this, nor will we be the last. While it may be new for us, it’s not new on the national scene of AMCs.

I have met with leaders at Vanderbilt University, University of North Carolina School of Medicine, Johns Hopkins Medicine, and University of Michigan Medical School to hear and understand how their structures work. I am confident this change will be effective to our overall purpose and mission, as it has been for theirs.

A key facet of my new role is ascertaining synergy between the lanes of academic research, patient care, and education and training. Ongoing alignment is achieved through our ability to focus on creating excellence in our individual lanes, then coming together in unity for the shared goal of quality patient outcomes.

Because of Dr. Will Ferniany, the UAB Health System has transformed and grown. He has focused on patient experience, promoted leadership retention and diversity efforts, and worked with other health systems in the community to improve access to care for the underserved.

I will carry on these initiatives and goals that he set in motion. I am cognizant of the fact that I will not be the same leader as Dr. Ferniany. But, what Dr. Ferniany and I share—our values, ethics, standards, and missions—will stay the same. My personal growth goal is to be a relational leader for every employee, faculty member, and trainee. That said, I recognize that I cannot be everywhere all the time and that I cannot be everything to everybody. To be successful, I will be strategic in my interactions, and I will let intention and purpose guide me.

Managing these roles will be largely driven by my reliance on the people serving in top leadership positions across the school and within UAB Medicine. Trusted and seasoned leaders across the enterprise and beyond will help shape the future.

It is my pleasure to work with Dawn Bulgarella, who assumed the role of president and CFO of UAB Health System on January 1. Dawn has consistently and reliably led various aspects of our enterprise since 1999. She has been at the forefront of our growth and has been a leading factor in the pursuit of excellence over the past two decades. Anupam Agarwal, M.D., executive vice dean in the Heersink School of Medicine, is an important leader and figure for department chairs and faculty. Not only is he an accomplished scientist, but he is also accomplished in academic strategy. He has built great trust and confidence from people around him and will serve us well. Our department chairs will lead in their lanes, continuing to ensure each mission area is a priority. Tika Benveniste, Ph.D., senior vice dean for Research, has been charged with continuing to build our science and research programs. I know she will continue to lead with integrity and honor—as she has for several decades. For operationalizing our strategy, I will turn to Reid Jones, CEO of UAB Medicine; Tony Jones, M.D., chief physician executive and senior associate dean for Clinical Affairs; and LaKisha Mack, senior associate dean for Finance and Administration. Furthermore, I am pleased to be working hand-in-hand with Jason Alexander, CEO of Ascension St. Vincent’s and senior vice president of Ascension, as we continue to partner on the UAB/Ascension St. Vincent’s Alliance, in an effort to improve quality and access to care across the state of Alabama.

These leaders and their teams all have a shared, common mission. We will continue to pursue high-quality patient care, the best possible outcomes, and growing our nationally-recognized programs to transform this part of the country into a healthier place to live and work.

Change may not come overnight. In my first 30 days, there will be a great deal of listening. Within my first year, there will be plenty of learning.

As I take on this new position with new responsibility, there is one thing I know for sure: I will lead by empathizing with each role in our enterprise. At all times, I will lead our employees, faculty, and trainees by putting myself in your shoes.

Thank you for your trust in me. May we grow together in 2022 and beyond.