School of Medicine alumni are making
a difference running area hospitals
In the back of her mind, Olevia Mitchem Pitts, M.D. ’86, always figured hospital leadership would be her calling. She credits her father, who encouraged her growing up to become a physician, for her inspiration.
“My father was not college-educated, but he wanted his children to be successful,” said Pitts, who last January was selected as chief medical officer at Kansas City’s Research Medical Center.
The UMKC School of Medicine has a rich history of producing trailblazers in all levels of the health care arena. It’s no surprise that many of the school’s graduates move into hospital leadership.
That background has allowed Pitts and other alumni to affect the health and wellbeing of multitudes of people. And, in line with the School of Medicine’s mission to attract, train and retain medical leaders in the region, Pitts and others have chosen to stay and serve Kansas City hospitals.
Pitts credits the School of Medicine and women such as Marjorie Sirridge, M.D., a founding docent and former dean, and Reaner Shannon, Ph.D., a longtime associate dean for minority affairs and champion of minority health, for shaping her path.
“UMKC gave me a phenomenal foundation for leadership,” Pitts said. “I think seeing women in roles of leadership, being exposed to strong women leaders, was important. I call that influence.”
From doctor to administrator
One common characteristic among alumni in high-level hospital administration is a natural leadership quality that was nurtured throughout their medical training at the School of Medicine.
Across town at the Saint Luke’s Health System headquarters, William Gilbirds, M.D. ’83, is almost one year into a dual role as medical director of quality for the health system and chief medical officer of Saint Luke’s Care, a physician-led organization focused on using evidence-based medicine to improve the quality of care.
For Gilbirds, it was a natural progression from clinician to administrator. The foundation for that transition was laid in medical school, where he was able to watch and work with faculty such as Harry Jonas, M.D., who served as president of the American Medical Association, and James Youngblood, M.D., who had been president of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
“I was able to observe leadership,” Gilbirds said. “Those were the kinds of folks that were at the School of Medicine. They were physician leaders.”
A retired member of the U.S. Air Force Reserves, Gilbirds quickly found himself in a leadership role as well. After completing his residency, he advanced to chief of hospital services at Whiteman Air Force Base near Kansas City. After the military, he served as president of the medical staff and quality physician leader at Saint Luke’s North Hospital and medical director of the Saint Luke’s Medical Group.
Throughout his career, Gilbirds has been a full-time family physician, worked in obstetrics, taken care of patients in nursing home units and worked as an emergency room physician. He still spends about a day and a half a week seeing patients.
The different roles have given him a solid understanding of the many aspects of medicine.
But it’s another skill, building relationships, that may have become the most beneficial as a hospital administrator. A cornerstone of the school’s medical education program is its docent system, which relies heavily on building relationships and trust between the docent instructors and their students.
“The thing I find interesting the further I get into administration is that the greatest asset you can have is the multiple relationships with people and the ability to get people moving in the direction of your vision,” Gilbirds said.
A knack for IT
Jeff Hackman, M.D. ’01, uses those same skills in his dual role of chief medical information officer and corporate medical director for quality at Kansas City’s Truman Medical Centers.
“As far as leadership, I think the docent system really instilled a lot of those values, and I was very fortunate to have had great docents and members on my docent team,” Hackman said.
With a knack for information technology, Hackman completed his emergency medicine residency at TMC and remained as associate chief medical information officer. Three years later he was named chief medical information officer. As the functions of information technology became more intertwined with the regulatory issues of quality of care and patient safety, he took on the added corporate role of overseeing quality of care.
Now, Hackman says, the skills he learned in medical school are essential to serving as an effective full-time hospital administrator.
“I think you have to start with the foundation of having medical knowledge and compassion and a desire to do the right thing in medicine,” Hackman said. “Then you learn the stuff about how to write policies and things like that along the way. But without that foundation you learn in medical school, you’re any other administrator instead of a medical leader.”
Hackman says he still finds rewards as a physician by making an impact on the lives of patients in other ways.
“I see changes in our health care system as a direct result of things my team is working on,” he said. “We’re working to expand our connectivity with other safety net providers. If we pull that off, that’s a game-changer in how we can take care of patients.”
Shifting to a global view
At Research Medical Center, Pitts is committed to using her 20-plus years of experience as a physician and a physician leader to make a positive impact on her hospital staff and their patients.
Before her current role, Pitts had served as senior vice president for the Kansas City and Wichita region for IPC-The Hospitalist Company.
She also served in the Kansas City area as medical director for Kindred Transitional Care Hospital, a long-term acute care facility, and at Encompass Hospice.
As her administrative duties matured, Pitts’ time directly caring for patients dwindled until she stopped seeing patients clinically a couple of years ago.
“I know what I am doing is impacting the lives of my providers and impacting the lives of their patients,” she said. “I am impacting the process, helping physicians do their jobs better. I am looking at things from a global view, not just me and my patients.”
Now, Pitts said, patient safety and quality of care are her primary focus, from not only a physician’s perspective, but through the eyes of the entire hospital staff, including areas such as nursing and dietary services.
“As CMO, my everyday agenda is quality and patient safety,” Pitts said. “We are all responsible for that patient.”
Though her administrative duties have overtaken the time she once spent with patients, Pitts still goes on rounds each day. As she visits patients at Research Medical Center, Pitts routinely asks questions such as, “Are you getting what you need?” and “Has your doctor explained everything to you?”
“I’m responsible for the safety of our patients and for the overall quality and overall hospital experience,” she said.
It is that competent, compassionate physician at heart — the foundation of health care learned at the UMKC School of Medicine — that makes Pitts, Gilbirds and Hackman, like so many graduates of the school, stand out as leading hospital administrators. •