UT Medical Group administrator Chuck Woeppel keeps caring for patients central to his leadership.
photograph by Beerkoff | dreamstime
For UT Medical Group’s new CEO Chuck Woeppel, healthcare is in his blood. “My dad was a physician, and my mother was a nurse,” Woeppel says. “I never thought of anything else.”
The New York native cut his teeth in the industry working for his hometown’s Buffalo General Hospital. But one day in the early 1980s, the city’s notorious winter weather convinced him it was time to move on. “It happened after a big snowstorm in Buffalo,” he recalls. “I decided that I’d had enough, and that I needed to find something in the South.”
His first taste of the South was in New Orleans, where, as Vice President of Operations for American Medical International, he opened a 300-bed community hospital. “When you’re running a hospital, you are working with every element you would be if you were running an actual city,” he says. “That especially becomes true if you have a major event that shuts down city services. You’re supplying your own electricity, and you have to make sure you are supplying enough food for everybody who needs to eat in your facility. It becomes a very complex integration of things, and most businesses don’t have to deal with that.”
Complex integration is a speciality for Woeppel, whose career has taken him into the heights of academic medicine, from Texas Tech University to the University of Virginia to Nashville’s Meharry Medical College. It can be intimidating, he admits, to work with some of the top minds in the field, “But I think managing and working with them improves what you are capable of doing,” he says.” I believe I work for the people, they don’t work for me. My job is to figure out how to make their jobs easier.”
Woeppel first came to UT Medical Group (UTMG) in 2012, serving as the Chief Operating Officer. “The COO position is complex,” he says. “There are so many different departments and physicians you have to work with in order to make things effective and efficient — and especially cost effective. Working in that environment and getting the opportunity to dive pretty deep into the operation gave me a tremendous perspective on the kinds of health problems people are suffering in the community and what we need to be focusing our attention on.”
But when Woeppel refers to the community UTMG serves, he is talking about something larger than the Memphis metro region; for they are not only doctors, they are teachers and innovators. “This organization has been in the Mid-South since 1974,” Woeppel says. “It really is one of the mainstays of the healthcare community. The healthcare perspective of UT, which we’re a part of, extends all the way across the state. We’re essentially impacting not only Memphis, but also Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Nashville.”
Woeppel takes over as CEO of UTMG at a time of transition. “The goal of the university is to align the physicians with multiple hospitals,” he says.”That creates a very different UTMG than has been here in the past. UTMG originally was about a 450 physician group, but now it’s going to be about 80 to 90 physicians. The goal is still the same — to insure that young physicians are learning the things they need to go into their communities to provide better healthcare. We’re going to be a lot smarter about the way we do that.”
The information revolution sweeping the medical world helps physicians work smarter, but it also creates a whole new set of challenges as administrators have to tame the mountain of patient data to learn how to run the operations more efficiently, and physicians and nurses have to learn how to use their new data tools effectively without losing the personal touch with patients that defines truly great healthcare. “That is very, very challenging,” Woeppel says.
Meanwhile, UTMG’s tradition of medical innovation continues with the creation of the new Kaplan-Amonette Department of Dermatology at UT Health Science Center. “It’s significant that all these years that the university has existed, that field had been a part of internal medicine. Now, it’s a freestanding organization,” says Woeppel.
But through it all, Weoppel says, his job is to keep UT Medical Group focused on medicine’s core mission: caring for patients. “The reason we have jobs is because people are sick. Therefore, we’ve got to go the extra mile to make things happen the right way for the patients.”