In May, Gene Woods, a 30-year health care executive, began work as CEO of Carolinas HealthCare System, a $9 billion public, nonprofit healthcare system.
Woods, 52, spent his first four months visiting hospitals and medical offices to meet employees and hear their stories. That “listening tour” was inspiring, Woods said, and prompted him to initiate two programs to “give some of that inspiration back to our employees.”
Read more about those ideas, along with his thoughts on North Carolina’s stance on expanding Medicaid, the state of the U.S. health care system and other topics discussed in a recent interview:
Q: What are employees telling you?
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A: I’m hearing some phenomenal stories about (how employees) serve patients and how they’re taking care of each other. Three weeks ago, we launched this product called eCards. I said, “I challenge you each to send five eCards by the end of the week.” (They should include) compliments to teammates for what what they’ve done on behalf of another teammate or patient. To catch people doing something right, if you will.…(About 26,000 have been sent.)
(Woods said he heard the story of a trauma patient who woke up in the hospital, saw the turquoise Tree of Life logo, and felt reassured that he would be well cared for.) .…So I sent a note to everybody. “Send me your Tree of Life stories.”
Q: What are Tree of Life stories?
A: One (was about) this maintenance guy who was coming through (Levine) Children’s Hospital. He was asked by a nurse to fix a television. As he walked in the room, he saw this very somber-looking father holding the hand of his very sick son. (The maintenance man) didn’t really know how to fix televisions. But as luck would have it, he figured it out, and “Superman” came on. He said he looked at the kid and saw a smile on his face. That made his day and he left. A year later, he bumped into the nurse, who said, “I’m so glad to see you again because the father was trying to get your name. He wanted to thank you because shortly after that his son had passed away. And that was the last smile that he saw on his son’s face.”…I’m getting hundreds of stories like that.
Q: Many people think the U.S. health care system is broken. Is it?
A: We’re very good at sick care. We’re not so good at keeping people healthy. …Part of the challenge is how do we come together to keep people healthier..…The whole pricing of health care is a national dialogue.…We owe it to consumers and patients to figure out how to make it more simple.
Q: What can you do to control rising costs?
We’re one of two systems in the country awarded (a federal) Hospital Engagement Network grant, which is several million dollars.…So the government has told us we’ve improved quality and reduced adverse safety events for 10,000 different patients. And in doing so we’ve saved $60 million of cost.
Q: Is the Affordable Care Act working?
A: We have 20 million people (nationally) that have gotten insurance through the exchange.… But we’re a little bit fragile right now (because of the withdrawal of Aetna and UnitedHealthcare from the online exchanges in some states, including North Carolina). That needs to be addressed.…I think there’s still a lot of promise. ...It’s probably going to take three to five years to completely figure out.
Q: What do you think about North Carolina’s refusal to expand Medicaid?
A: (In North Carolina, an estimated 500,000 low-income citizens are without health insurance who would have been covered with an expansion of Medicaid, funded largely by the federal government.) That money is going to other states (which did expand Medicaid). There are some recent journal articles that have said that in Medicaid expansion states, people are getting healthier.…I’m hoping there continues to be discussion and that there are people on both sides of the aisle politically that figure a way to meet in the middle. I think our citizens are deserving of that.
Q: How does the presidential election affect health care?
A: Forgive the pun, but it is a go-left or go-right moment on health care.…As incoming chair of the American Hospital Association, I’m asked “What should we do?” “How should we prepare?” My answer consistently is to improve quality and decrease cost. No matter what the outcome, you’re going to continue to advance in the health care system.
Q: I’ve heard you say you don’t allow smartphones in meetings. Is that true?
A: I am a big fan of technology, but have always felt that it is important to be fully present at meetings versus checking one’s iPhones all the time. It’s not only a sign of respect to colleagues, but in healthcare we deal with really critical and complex issues that require full attention and engagement. So one of the meeting ground rules I have had for many years is “Put your phones away.”
Family: Wife, Ramona Woods; two sons, Antonio, 21, senior at University of Illinois, and Marcus, 15, sophomore at Charlotte Country Day.
Personal: Born July 19, 1964, in Rhode Island. His father was in the U.S. Navy, and the family moved a lot. As a child, he lived in Spain, his mother’s homeland, then moved to Pennsylvania for elementary and high school.
Education: Pennsylvania State University for bachelor’s degree in health planning and administration and master’s degrees in business administration and health administration.
Career: President and COO, CHRISTUS Health, 2011 to May 2016. Previously CEO, Saint Joseph Health System and senior vice president, Catholic Health Initiatives, Lexington, Ky.; COO at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, Washington, D.C.; president and CEO, Roy Schneider Hospital, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands; vice president, Southside Regional Medical Center, St. Petersburg, Va.; director of quality improvement, Tyrone Hospital, rural Pennsylvania; and executive director, Women’s Health Services, Lewistown, Pa.
Honors: Named to Modern Healthcare’s list of the 100 Most Influential People in Healthcare 2016; chair-elect of the American Hospital Association.
Quote: “I joke that if you come into our Thanksgiving dinner, you’d walk into the (United Nations). My father is African American from rural Tennessee. My mother is from southern Spain. My mother-in-law is Mohawk, from the reservation. She grew up across from the St. Lawrence River in Montreal. My father-in-law is Dutch Irish from rural Nebraska.…There are certain discussions that you stay away from – like (Christopher) Columbus.”