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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
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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