The Interview: Memorial Hermann CEO Chuck Stokes

Philip Betbeze, February 1, 2018

He began his career as a critical care nurse at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, and later became a nurse executive before completing his master's degree in health administration at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

As he rose higher in the executive ranks, he began to get reacquainted with some of the doctors he used to work with in patient care. His role was different now, but he maintained a collegial role with those physicians, who joked that they could tell embarrassing stories about knowing him when he was just starting out.

When he was president of 650-bed North Mississippi Medical Center, the organization won the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in 2006.

He came to Memorial Hermann as system chief operating officer in 2008, and its Sugar Land Hospital won the Baldrige award in 2016.

Yet even today, Memorial Hermann faces plenty of challenges.

The Houston-area market is reeling not only from the effects of Hurricane Harvey last fall, but also from a multiyear depression in oil prices.

The executive turmoil at Memorial Hermann has not been limited to the CEO. Numerous top executives recently left to take leadership positions at other large health systems, and the system laid off more than a hundred people in leadership roles in early 2017.

Its most recent layoff of 350 people was announced in late June, only days after Stokes took over as CEO.

Stokes calls himself "just an old clinician" regarding the circumstances surrounding his change of heart about leading the health system. He plans to revive morale and transform the way the still-profitable health system does business.

Following are the highlights of his recent conversation with HealthLeaders.

"The hands-on perspective of taking care of a patient gives you insight into running a health system. This is a clinically driven enterprise, and having someone understand that at the top provides a different dimension to decision-making. With movement from volume to value, we're going to have to deal with moving from an illness model to a wellness model. We have to get a handle on things that contribute to ill health. Those are things clinical people all know because we see it every day.

"I was not a candidate last time. I enjoyed the role as COO. Dan [Wolterman] knew that, and I did not put myself in that position. I enjoy operationalizing programs, and that has been my strength. Ben [Chu] made a decision that he wanted to go back into healthcare policy, and the board and I made a decision not to do another search. I was familiar with the CEO role and was in a good position to move forward. The medical staff and leadership team were comfortable with me. It was a symbiotic decision between the board and myself that this would be the least disruptive when there was a lot of unknown.

Philip Betbeze

Philip Betbeze is the senior leadership editor at HealthLeaders Media.

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