On March 7, 2020, Michael Ugwueke, President and CEO of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, received the
call he knew was inevitable.
The first COVID-19 case had been confirmed in Memphis. A resident tested positive after returning from Mardi Gras. The area’s largest healthcare system was now on the frontlines of this global crisis.
“In that moment, I knew everything would change for our organization and our city,” said Ugwueke. “There was so much to do, from acquiring enough supplies to ensuring adequate staffing and beds.”
Ugwueke is effusive in his praise of frontline workers. “Our employees and healthcare workers everywhere are the heroes of our time. Words are insufficient to describe what they have accomplished.”
This wasn’t the first time Ugwueke’s normalcy was uprooted. Born in Nigeria, Ugwueke grew up with hardworking parents who had little money or education but provided a happy and stable upbringing. The 1967 Civil War shattered this idyllic existence. Forced into refugee camps, he was briefly separated from his parents, unaware if they were still alive.
This harrowing experience would impact Ugwueke for the rest of his life. He witnessed ravages brought by a lack of medical care, and watched his one-year-old brother die. Through this tragedy, he found his purpose.
Ugwueke scraped money together to travel to the U.S. for college. Supporting himself through odd jobs, he earned a bachelor’s degree in Biology, a Master of Public Health and Doctor of Health Administration. In Atlanta, while at Emory he saw first-hand health and economic inequities, in stark contrast to his previously idealized vision of America.
Over subsequent decades, Ugwueke excelled in healthcare leadership roles. In 2007, he was recruited to lead a turnaround of Methodist South Hospital. Success led to new responsibilities. He became COO of the system in 2013 and president and CEO in 2017.
His exceptional leadership earned Ugwueke the Baldrige Foundation’s Harry S. Hertz Leadership Award, recognizing leadership role-models that challenge, encourage and empower others to achieve performance excellence.
Three foundational principles guide him: discipline, innovation, and purpose.
“Discipline is what makes us most effective and productive,” said Ugwueke. “Innovation is what makes forward progress possible. Purpose is our North Star; it is why we do this in the first place.”
Taking the helm, Ugwueke challenged MLH to achieve top decile in all performance measures – often repeating a simple question: “Who wants to receive care at an average hospital?”
Through focus and discipline, MLH earned ISO 9001 certification, the gold standard for quality and safety and straight “A” grades in patient safety, from a leading national watchdog – the only MidSouth health system to do so.
Ugwueke insists disciplined operational excellence is not enough; organizations need to focus on breaking the status quo and driving transformative change. He established the Process Improvement and Innovation department and designed an incentive program encouraging employees to identify cost-saving or revenue-boosting ideas that have uncovered $13.5M in benefits.
Ugwueke emphasizes discipline and innovation only exist in service to a higher purpose: improving the community’s well-being. That means expanding healthcare access to communities most in need. It also means lifting up employees through a living wage for all and greater training and advancement opportunities.
Ugwueke sees significant challenges and opportunities for the industry. Healthcare, he says, is facing its moment of truth.
“The pandemic taught us to better prepare for acute public health risks. We must also address the continuing tragedy of health inequities that are simply unacceptable, both morally and practically, while contending with rising costs and an aging population.”
If that assessment seems troubling, Ugwueke offers hope. “We have an exceptionally talented and dedicated workforce, breathtaking new technology and exceptional research transforming treatment options. And we have at least a framework for public health policy incentivizing prevention over late-stage treatment.
“How the sector deals with these challenges and opportunities over the coming years will set a direction for a generation.”