By Angela Lindsay
Embracing challenge is nothing new for Eugene A. Woods. He’s fluent in Spanish, is an accomplished guitar player and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro several years ago. His latest challenge? Bringing 24 years of health care leadership experience to Carolinas HealthCare System as its new president and chief executive officer. The board of commissioners of Carolinas HealthCare System unanimously approved the appointment of Woods in February of 2016, to succeed Michael C. Tarwater, who retired in June 2016. In the past, Woods has overseen nonprofit and for-profit-managed hospitals, academic and community-based delivery systems, and rural and urban facilities, including most recently serving as president and CEO of CHRISTUS Health. It is based in Irving, Texas, and has more than 50 hospitals and long-term care facilities, 175 clinics and outpatient centers and 30,000 associates. Now, the new leader at CHS shares what he has in store for the future of one of the most comprehensive and highly integrated health care systems in the nation.
Answers have been edited for brevity.
Pride: What was it about the possibility to lead Carolinas HealthCare that intrigued you, and why did you think it would be a good fit for you?
Woods: I have followed Carolinas HealthCare System for a number of years, because I have admired the depth of clinical excellence that exists here, which rivals systems from across the country. Beyond that, I was really attracted to the mission. Going back to the days when it was Charlotte Memorial, this organization has always been there 24/7, 365 days a year, for everyone in the community, no matter who they were, what they looked like or where they were from. I felt those values very much aligned with mine. I sincerely believe that our biggest obligation is to improve the health of our communities, and I can’t think of a better place in the country than at Carolinas HealthCare System to do this really important work.
Pride: How would you describe your leadership style?
Woods: One might argue that not really listening to each other is the cause of major societal ills. So listening well has always been central to my leadership approach. When I arrived at Carolinas HealthCare System, I spent a lot of time ‘rounding’ – visiting our hospitals and facilities and hearing from patients and teammates on the front lines of the organization – listening to their stories, finding the ‘bright spots’ and learning from them. I think that the best way to stay close to the pulse of an organization, especially one as large as Carolinas HealthCare System, is by listening at all levels of the organization. That way, when I make major decisions, I am informed by the many perspectives I have heard.
Pride: What do you think will be some of the biggest challenges you may face in your role with Carolinas HealthCare System?
Woods: One of the biggest challenges will be to reduce the health care disparities that plague our communities of color. We know that African Americans and Latinos are more likely to die from almost every kind of cancer, including breast, colon, lung and prostate cancer. We’re also more likely to suffer, and die from, chronic illnesses like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Addressing these challenges means we need to find ways to help people prevent and manage chronic illnesses. But, in addition to good medical care, eliminating health disparities requires a focus on the social determinants of health, including access to nutritional food, safe and affordable places to play and exercise,; a strong educational system, stable housing, reliable transportation and committed social support and organizations. That requires a sustainable commitment and strong partnerships among the public and private sectors, and it requires listening to those who are most vulnerable among us on what they need most. So in some ways, it will be one of the biggest challenges but also a tremendous opportunity. I see a lot of willingness to work together and tackle these issues, so that we can be a national model in how a community can come together around an agenda focused on health – in the broadest sense of the word.
Pride: Are there other areas within Carolinas HealthCare System that are of particular interest to you, and why?
Woods: I think our work in population and community health is extremely important. I also think that with advances in cancer treatment, like immunotherapy, we’re on the verge of changing the game with that disease. At our Levine Cancer Institute, we’ve created a cancer program with centers across the Carolinas. What that means is that people who normally wouldn’t have access to groundbreaking clinical trials are able to enroll. For people of color, whose cancer is often discovered later and is more often fatal, these trials can be lifesaving.
We’re also working hard to ensure early detection, which also can make a huge difference in outcome. In 2017, we’re launching a mobile lung cancer screening unit that will travel to areas most at-risk for lung cancer. This unit, the only one of its kind in the country, will help us identify the disease before it’s too late, hopefully saving lives.
Behavioral health is another area where we have really led, not only regionally but nationally.
We don’t talk about mental health issues like we should, especially in the African-American and Hispanic communities. But the truth is that one in four people deal with some form of behavioral health issue, like depression. And for people with chronic diseases, like diabetes, that number is even higher. The problem is, there is still a stigma attached to seeing a mental health professional. So, tackling the stigma and making behavioral health more accessible is key.
Right now, we have more than two dozen primary care and family practices connected to a behavioral health headquarters virtually. This gets us closer to treating the whole person, not just separate ailments. It’s exciting, because we’re already starting to see reductions in anxiety and depression scores – we’re also seeing better management of A1c and cholesterol in these patients. We’re also partnering with churches, schools and community organizations to teach mental health first aid and train lay people on how to spot potential mental health issues in their families and friends, and how to get them help. So far, we’ve trained more than 7,000 people.
Pride: Overall, what has been the most rewarding aspect about your career path thus far?
Muhammad Ali said, ‘Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.’ This is a career where I’ve had an opportunity to pay my rent, and I can focus on paying it to this community every day. I have the privilege of working with a talented team of people who are committed to improving our community. I saw it firsthand during the unrest that hit our city a few months ago. I saw our teammates band together and work to heal police and protestors alike. Their work and humanity is inspiring to me, and I’m privileged to be part of that team.
My career has also allowed me to be involved with people and groups that are focused on improving the lives of those in our own communities. I’ve been able to work with other African-American men and women – like Jesse Cureton at Novant and Brett Carter at Bank of America – to establish One Charlotte, an organization committed to finding ways we can come together and support grass-roots organizations and help make real contributions to the African-American community.
Pride: I understand you are an accomplished musician. What instrument(s) do you play, what type of music do you enjoy and what or who inspired your interest in music?
Woods: Music was an important part of my childhood. When I was 10, my parents missed one month of rent in order to buy me a guitar for Christmas, and I have been playing ever since. From my earliest days, I remember my father wearing out the reel-to-reel and record player with everything from B.B. King and Stevie Wonder to Little John Taylor, Jimmy Smith, Joe Tex and so on. In fact, I paid the bills in college by playing in different bands, including many genres: jazz, rock, soul and blues. There is just something that has always been very special about connecting with people through music.
Pride: It’s football season—are you are Carolina Panthers fan yet, or do you have an allegiance to another team?
Woods: How can you live in Charlotte and not root for the Panthers? Particularly with so many of the players being involved with our patients. Cam Newton has been an integral part of our 5210 program, which targets childhood obesity. Greg Olsen has a special connection to Levine Children’s Hospital and has been one of the organization’s most active supporters through his ‘Heartest Yard’ program. Thomas Davis was one of the earliest supporters of our Heart of a Champion free athletic screening program for high school athletes. And there probably isn’t a week that goes by that members of the Panthers organization – along with many of the other athletes in our area – are [not] visiting with kids at our hospital. It’s always great to see their faces light up when they meet and talk to their sports heroes. With that said, I did grow up in Philadelphia and I am an Eagles fan, first and foremost. My son is a Cowboys fan, so there are a couple weeks a year where it can a little tense. And my wife is a Steelers fan, so there are plenty of rivalries in the house during football season.
Pride: I saw from the CHS website that you tweet quite a bit. Why is that important to you, and what role(s) do you think social media can/will play in the future of the health care industry?
Woods: Social media has been a great tool to connect and communicate with over 60,000 teammates as directly as possible. When used effectively, it facilitates dialogue between our teammates and closes the distance between people figuratively and literally. I believe social media will continue to play a role in how patients find and choose doctors. In fact, Yelp has had a huge impact in health care. People expect to be able to read and leave reviews on just about anything, and health care is no different. More patient feedback and transparency gives us good insight into what patients want and what they consider to be valuable from their providers. We believe this is a good thing, and have started an initiative to publish provider star ratings and patient comments on our own website. We’re the first and only health system in the region to do this, and I believe this helps our patients and the community make informed decisions about their health care, and that’s important.