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University of Tennessee Medical Center’s new leader talks about transforming health

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Keith Gray became UTMC’s president in July, and he’ll take over as CEO next spring. He talks about patient care, health equity and why he’s ready to tackle the challenge of improving outcomes.

Keith Gray, president of the University of Tennessee Medical Center, will take over as CEO in April. (Photo: UTMC)

Keith Gray, president of the University of Tennessee Medical Center, will take over as CEO in April. (Photo: UTMC)

On his way to being named the next CEO of the University of Tennessee Medical Center, Keith Gray says he essentially underwent a two-year interview.

The system’s board underwent an extensive process to determine who should succeed longtime CEO Joe Landsman, who has announced his retirement plans.

When Landsman acknowledged that he was being considered for such a long period, Gray says with a smile, “I’m glad he acknowledged that because it felt like that to me.”

“I'm glad to get the vote of confidence from them, from him, from our team members, our medical staff, in our community, so I'm really honored to be in a position,” Gray says.

Gray became president of the medical center on July 1, and he’ll take over as CEO when Landsman steps down on April 1, 2024. Landsman has been the medical center’s CEO since 2005.

A surgical oncologist, Gray most recently served as UTMC’s executive vice president and chief medical officer.

In an interview with Chief Healthcare Executive®, Gray discusses how he’s preparing for his new role, the medical center's goals for improving patient care and the patient experience, and why he’s relishing his opportunity. He also talks frankly about the challenges, including the fact that Tennessee lags most states in many health measures.

“My CEO says that if he leaves and people notice, then we've probably done something wrong,” Gray says. “And I agree with that.”

(See part of our conversation with Keith Gray in this video. The story continues below.)

‘Transformation is a journey’

Gray says the medical center is aiming to transform the health of its patients in Tennessee.

“I was reminded yesterday by my leadership team, a transformation is a journey,” Gray says. “It's not a destination. So that was refreshing for me.”

Over the next several months, Gray says he plans to do a lot of talking with members of the organization to get their input.

“I really want to hear what's on the mind of the people that I represent, the leadership team, the medical staff, the team members and the community,” Gray says. “So I'll spend most of my time doing that. And then really just executing the strategic plan that we've spent the last 15 months developing.”

The University of Tennessee Medical Center’s strategic plan focuses on being a high-value proposition for patients and payers, Gray says. The medical center is also aiming to expand its reach.

“We want to make sure that we have the geographic footprint for people to access our service, regardless of where they live,” he says.

The medical center aims to embrace its academic mission, with training, fellowships and research, Gray says.

UTMC is focusing on recruiting and developing good people “so that they get joy and satisfaction out of their job,” he says.

The medical center and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville are partnering on a “Nursing Scholars Program” to help train new nurses. When the program reaches capacity, it’s expected to provide an additional 100 nurses each year who will work at UTMC.

Gray points to UTMC adding a wellness director, who is working to help employees. And he says the center is also targeting workplace violence in the medical center “and

letting our team members know that we will not tolerate them being disrespected.”

Improving health equity

The medical center is working to improve health equity, and it sees significant challenges in urban communities and some of the surrounding rural counties. The medical center is based in the city of Knoxville, but its 21-county service area includes some small rural towns.

When asked about his aims of improving health equity, he talks about partnerships and working with communities. The system has spent years learning about the health disparities in its patient population.

“I think the key part, maybe the most important part of health equity, is establishing trust in the community,” Gray says.

UTMC has established free clinics offering outreach programs into rural counties, and initiatives aimed at reaching underserved groups in cities. He’s looking to build more partnerships to address the social determinants of health.

“We have the opportunity to do meaningful research for our region,” Gray says. “We live in Central Appalachia, with unique challenges, both urban and rural. And so we have to be intentional about serving the population.”

As part of those efforts to expand access, Gray says telehealth and remote patient monitoring will be part of the equation to make it easier for people to get healthcare. “We have to have a digital presence,” he says.

“Patients are demanding it, you know,” Gray says. “We're serving a lot of generations in the healthcare system right now. And our younger patients are demanding easy access to the portal and their information, and also receiving that care at home or remotely when they don't have to come into the office.”

'Patient experience drives everything'

Beyond aiming to improve the quality of care, Gray says it’s critical to give patients a better experience in all areas, from dealing with billing to answering questions from patients.

“I think the patient experience drives everything that we do,” Gray says.

“So we've been asking ourselves the question: When does the patient experience begin and end? And what we've where we've settled is that really, there's no beginning and no end,” he says.

Gray again stresses the importance of listening to patients and communicating effectively.

“We have to communicate with them in the ways in which they understand,” he says. “That builds trust.“And then we have to offer a high quality, safe, effective and efficient product. And if they have the outcome that they're looking for, that then builds loyalty, which then again, continues to drive volume for us,” Gray says.

Seeking better outcomes

Tennessee ranks among the lowest states in some health metrics. The Volunteer State placed near the bottom in a state-by-state analysis of healthcare by the Commonwealth Fund.

Between 2019 and 2021, Tennessee’s maternal mortality rate ranked second in the nation, according to the Commonwealth Fund. Only four states had a higher number of preventable deaths per 100,000 people. In a number of areas, “we rank in the bottom five or six states as far as health outcomes,” Gray says.

While that would seem daunting, Gray says he’s embracing the opportunity to make a difference.

“I am excited about the opportunity to partner with my team, with our team members and our community to really transform the health of this community,” Gray says.

“I want our health outcomes to be different at the end of my career,” he says. “I want to lead an organization that everyone in our community can trust, and no one in our community feels like they have to leave the community to have access to the highest quality care and the highest end services.

“So that's what I'm excited about,” he continues. “That's the reason I get up every day. That's the reason I come to work. That's the reason I came to work as a surgical oncologist. And that's the reason I still come to work as an administrator.”



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