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Executive Profile

First, Aid

Bill Atkinson, the new CEO 
of WakeMed, learned healthcare
in the back of an ambulance

By Suzanne M. Wood

Bill Atkinson’s journey to the CEO post at WakeMed in Raleigh, the state’s fourth-largest hospital system, began years before he completed his master of public administration degree. It was well under way even before he received his first master’s degree, in public health, at the University of South Carolina in 1981. In fact, he started on the course right out of high school when a desire to serve and an interest in healthcare led him to an EMS training officer position with Rockingham County’s Emergency Medical Services.

But his stint in the caregiving business clearly wasn’t a calculated career move. He didn’t just learn from the experience and move on as others might have. A couple of years later, while enrolled at UNC-Greensboro in 1975, he got a part-time job as an EMT and paramedic with Guilford County EMS. For 10 years, Atkinson came to the aid of fire and accident victims, heart patients, women whose babies were born too fast, and the other sick and hurt of Greensboro and High Point — on a part-time basis while he went to school and even after he had full-time jobs with Humana Hospitals.

He didn’t stop riding the truck until he was named executive director of a Humana hospital in Texas. “I think about those experiences and the people I worked with at Guilford EMS every day,” says Atkinson, 49. “It was a phenomenal time.”

That background as a front-line caregiver, plus his academic pedigree and 22 years in hospital administration, makes him uniquely qualified to lead WakeMed as hospitals across the country face mounting challenges in the areas of patient care, revenue and reimbursement, employee recruitment and community service. But Atkinson — who assumed the top post at WakeMed in July 2003 upon the retirement of longtime CEO Ray Champ — relishes the work ahead.

“There’s never been a better time to be in healthcare,” he says. “My Ph.D. dissertation was on ‘innovation diffusion theory’ — how do ideas work on behalf of society? — and there’s no better platform from which to ask that question than healthcare. This is not an environment that allows us to take our mission casually. I always say our patients are all God’s children, they’re our responsibility.”

What drives him most is knowing that he’s in the life-saving, life-improving business. “It’s exciting to wake up in the morning and think that maybe you’ll make a difference in someone’s life today,” he says. “That counts for something.”

He’s also committed to the idea of hospitals as economic development engines. Indeed, they’re often a community’s largest employer, and as the demand for healthcare grows apace with the aging of the population and increasing clinical capabilities, hospitals’ roles as an engine of economic recovery will only increase.

That means opportunities for biotech firms, pharmaceutical companies and other healthcare related interests. And he sees the Triangle — and WakeMed — leading the way, breathing new life into a state that is losing its traditional industries to foreign competition. Initiating more research, partnering with private companies, entering consortiums, forging associations — this is the kind of activity Atkinson wants to see WakeMed do more of. The net result? Better patient care and cost containment.

“We’re not looking for a way to be busier, but to be better,” he says. “This is the future of North Carolina — the pod of biotechnology and biomedicine. We just plan to be dead center in the middle of it. The greatest thing about being in the Triangle is to wake up every morning and discover another resource that will help us, from universities to associations to employers.”

Atkinson came to the Triangle after six years as the president and CEO of New Hanover Health Network in Wilmington. New Hanover Regional Medical, the largest employer in the county, is the state’s 10th largest hospital system. Atkinson’s achievements at the helm of New Hanover included purchasing Cape Fear Hospital from Columbia/HCA, returning the hospital to local ownership and creating the New Hanover Health Network. He also was instrumental in bringing in Pender Memorial Hospital to the New Hanover Health Network. Atkinson also helped establish two new medical disciplines at the network’s hospitals and also led the effort to open a new outpatient diagnostic center in northeastern New Hanover.

Not surprisingly given his EMS background, Atkinson also brought back EMS services under the network’s umbrella, emphasizing preparedness programs in the event of disasters — natural ones such as hurricanes, and man-made ones including bioterrorism. The system now even has its own Humvee. So thorough was his approach that today Atkinson is considered an expert in bioterrorism preparedness, consulted by administrators across the country.

His own preparedness was one of the things that impressed Sylva Rountree, who was chair of the committee that hired Atkinson for the New Hanover Health Network position. “It was clear he had done hours of homework,” recalls Rountree, a former longtime member of the New Hanover board. “He knew everything about our system.”

Those who knew Atkinson in Wilmington were sorry to see him go, but understood what an opportunity an institution of WakeMed’s size presented. “Passionate, enthusiastic and committed” is how Leo Petit characterizes Atkinson. Petit, who retired several months ago as CEO of Bladen County Hospital, knew Atkinson from the Coastal Carolina Alliance, an association of southeastern North Carolina hospitals.

“I find him to be an awesome kind of guy — there’s that unlimited energy and when you throw in his intelligence and management skills, you’ve got quite a package,” says Petit. “I don’t know anyone with quite the level of energy, and I’ve been around a lot of people who are the kind who don’t need a lot of sleep. Plus he’s a very, very pleasant guy with a sense of humor.”

Lucky Welch was equally impressed with Atkinson. Welch, who is president of Southeastern Regional Hospital in Lumberton, also worked with Atkinson on the Coastal Carolina Alliance. “We worked together collaboratively because we felt it was much better to cooperate than to compete — that was his philosophy and mine,” Welch recalls. “He was influential among alliance leaders because he was able to convince them what he was all about was improving the quality of care of our citizens, not just bettering his own institution. He supported us when we were looking to bring in an open heart surgery program run by Duke because he said it was the right thing to do. He has such integrity I would trust him with my life and the life of my family because he passionately believes in helping people.”

Atkinson has been entrusted with the lives of many people, and he knows where that desire to serve comes from: his schooling at Oak Ridge Military Academy in Oak Ridge, a small town just a few minutes northeast of Kernersville.

“The roots of much of my thinking were born out of that environment — old fashioned values like duty, honor, country do count,” he says. “It sounds corny, but it’s true. I haven’t had an experience that wasn’t influenced by those values.”

He was also influenced by his mother’s brother, Bill McClendon, a physician at UNC Hospitals whom Atkinson admired and whom he credits with being an early user of computers to manage patient care.

Atkinson was born in Greensboro in 1954, the youngest of Edward and Mary Louise Atkinson’s three children. His father died when he was a sophomore at Oak Ridge. The stroke that took Edward Atkinson probably wouldn’t have proven fatal today because of advances in cardiovascular medicine, Atkinson says. And that’s part of what makes being in the healthcare delivery business so exciting — and so expensive for employers and other payers, and so fiscally risky for hospitals.

The state’s 137 hospitals took in $17 billion in gross revenue in 2000, but their liability insurance premiums have doubled. They also have expensive labor costs and must write off in the neighborhood of $1 billion a year for treating the uninsured, according to the N.C. Hospital Association. (At WakeMed, the tab for free care was $69 million in 2002.) It’s no wonder that about a third of all hospitals in the state are operating on a deficit.

But Atkinson is a visionary, according to those who know him. The way he sees it, the problems hospitals and other providers face are challenges to be overcome by smart thinking and directing resources to research and development and workforce preparedness. Another area he’s known for is workforce development. He served on former Gov. Jim Hunt’s welfare-to-work taskforce when he first came to Wilmington, and helped forge alliances with community colleges to help ensure a pipeline of skilled workers into the region’s hospitals.

“I’m a believer that the energy in society is in education — we have to pay attention to a community’s education system. WakeMed has a history of investing in education that will continue. That includes attracting and keeping the best teachers and helping them on the job.”

When he’s not talking about education, Atkinson also gets animated on the subject of healthcare as the key to the state’s prosperity. “I’m convinced there are opportunities out there waiting to be discovered,” he says. “There’s a tremendous market in healthcare applications, common sense solutions to our problems. For one thing, communications capabilities are not keeping up with other technologies.”

Take X-ray technology, for example. In an era when half-pound preemies grow into healthy kids and heart catheterizations are done through the wrist to make the procedure even less invasive, patients still have to pick up their films and take them across town to their specialists. But if companies could figure out how to make digital X-ray technology as affordable and accessible as digital photography is to consumers, the results of patients’ studies could be downloaded to a disk or emailed to a doctor’s office. The benefits to patients and care providers would be obvious.

“We are responsible for finding viable solutions to problems,” he says of WakeMed. “Hospitals traditionally aren’t in the R&D orbit, but I see us linking with companies in RTP and other areas to find technologies to improve the quality and safety of patient care. We absolutely want to be on the leading edge of information transfer that would, for example, help speed along recognition of disease patterns.”

Atkinson will bring that enthusiasm and imagination to the N.C. Hospital Association when he assumes the chair’s role this month. “He’ll bring an energy that will benefit our staff and members,” says Bill Pully, president of the NCHA. “He’s always calling us to a higher ground. He has a unique way of knowing where we should be, a real vision and a real talent in conveying that vision. He’s as good a leader as any I’ve seen. And coming to this career as a caregiver, he saw hospital management as an extension of being a caregiver. He’s a real leader among our members in addressing the quality of patient care.”

Caregiving is all in the family at the Atkinson house in Raleigh. His wife, Allison, is a nurse practitioner specializing in obstetrics and gynecology. Although she spends her days now being a stay-at-home mom to the couple’s three boys — ages 16, 11 and 8 — she plans to return to clinical practice someday. Besides, she does enough nursing as a mother of three active kids. Recently, she chided her husband for roughhousing on the floor with the kids and their puppy and winding up with a scratched ear from a stray claw.

At work, the situations tend to be graver than puppy scratches, and he’s aware of the responsibility and influence that come with his position. “At the end of the day, people come here when their life is at risk,” Atkinson says. “When you lead an organization like this, failure can cost people their lives. The great equalizer is to bring together resources to make sure everyone receives the care they need.”

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