When Dr. LouAnn Heath Woodward was named vice chancellor for health affairs at the University of Mississippi Medical Center this spring, the story made national headlines. Her status as the first woman to serve as the top administrator of the state’s only academic medical center is big news, but her colleagues weren’t surprised when she emerged as the preferred candidate after a robust national search.
Woodward truly worked her way up the ranks at UMMC, starting as a medical student, later doing her residency in emergency medicine and then joining the faculty. Woodward recently commented that she had been at the med center “forever,” but in fact she had a previous life as a Mississippi State Bulldog. Woodward prepared for medical school by earning a microbiology degree at MSU in 1985.
She pointed out that not only is she the first woman in her new role, but she also is the first MSU alum to lead the medical center.
Recalling her undergraduate days, Woodward said Mississippi State prepared her for the academic rigors of medical school. For the Carroll County native and Kirk Academy graduate, Woodward said MSU seemed like the most logical place for her to attend college.
“It was in some of the difficult courses that I took at Mississippi State that I learned how to study,” Woodward said. She fondly remembers Don Downer, her academic advisor and a longtime university department head.
“And I had several other faculty members who were very important to me and were unofficially my advisors as well. I had a great experience at Mississippi State,” she said.
At UMMC, Woodward thrived in medical school and as she specialized in emergency medicine. She said experiences of seeing a large variety of patients and medical conditions presented in the ER have served her well in her administrative roles.
“Even though it seems like a career in emergency medicine couldn’t be more different than an administrative role, some of the skills actually translate very well,” Woodward said.
“You gain a comfort level having to make decisions that may be stressful or ‘high stakes’ or important when you know that you don’t have all of the information. I think that is one thing that has been very useful to me––not that I would want to make decisions willy nilly, but if you wait to get to the point that you know everything there is to know about a situation, then you become paralyzed and unable to make decisions and move on,” she explained.
The great variety at the medical center is one of the joys of her work.
As vice chancellor for health affairs, dean of the school of medicine and professor of emergency medicine, Woodward’s responsibilities may seem daunting. She oversees nearly 10,000 employees and roughly 3,000 students. The campus includes four hospitals for adults, children, women and infants, and critical care patients. UMMC also operates two community hospitals in Lexington and Grenada. Millions of dollars in construction projects are under way to further expand the capabilities and capacity of the center, but Woodward said it’s her confidence in UMMC’s team that helps her approach daily challenges.
“Whether it’s the students, researchers, staff or the faculty, there is a dedication to making Mississippi better here that just oozes out of the walls,” she said.
“Of course, I don’t personally supervise 10,000 people, so I’ve got a very strong team around me of people who are absolutely dedicated,” she said. “My job is to keep people focused on the end point, and I really try to communicate clearly and as much as possible.”
Woodward said she’s never the smartest person in the room, but keys to her success have been a willingness to take on challenges, work hard and stay positive and focused.
“I’m persistent and I understand that there’s more than one way to get things done. When plan A doesn’t work out, what’s plan B? Let’s keep trying and being positive,” she said, adding that a thick skin helps as well.
In addition to her career, Woodward has raised four children with her husband Jon. The couple has one 19-year-old daughter, twin 17-year-old daughters and a 15-year-old son.
“I’ve got great kids and an unusually tolerant husband. It really does take a team,” she said. “Everywhere I go, I’ve got wonderful people who support me.”
Woodward said that since her appointment as vice chancellor was approved by Institutions of Higher Learning earlier this year, she’s been intrigued by the interest garnered by the fact that she’s the first woman to take on this position. She said UMMC has a number of other women in leadership positions and she doesn’t feel gender has been a limiting factor during her career.
“I’ve never felt that there was something that I wanted to do that I couldn’t do because I was a woman,” she said. “For my age, there are still more men than women practicing medicine, but in the younger medical school classes, it’s split 50-50 basically across the country,” she said.
Woodward maintains her ties to MSU, usually making a football game and tailgate at least once a year. She also visits Starkville for weekend getaways with a few girlfriends who have remained close since school days.
“I’ve also been back up there several times talking to the pre-med students,” she noted, and she’s visited with MSU President Mark E. Keenum and first lady Rhonda Keenum in their home.
As she now focuses on leading the medical center toward future successes, Woodward said she has a vision to tackle the major health issues in a state that often ranks at the bottom for health-related outcomes.
“Whether it’s childhood asthma or high rates of diabetes in some selected counties in Mississippi, we have to work collaboratively with focused efforts to really make a difference,” she said, emphasizing that there’s not just one solution that will address Mississippi’s health problems.
“We are last in physicians per capita, so one of the things that we are doing to address that is growing our medical school class size. Adding physicians to the workforce in Mississippi is not the only answer, but when you’re last, you know it’s part of the answer,” she said.
Another major health care issue is access.
“I grew up knowing people who didn’t have a ride to where they needed to go, so just the basic access to health care was a major obstacle. We are really growing and expanding our telehealth program so people won’t have to drive two or three hours to see the doctors they need to see. With technology, we can get the provider and the support to the patients,” she explained.
Woodward said many health challenges present great need and great responsibility for the medical center, and she feels passionately that Mississippians are the right people to drive solutions.
“We’ve got people who are thinking about education, people who are enmeshed in their research and people working day and night taking care of patients,” she said. “But the wonderful thing is that at the end, even though people might be doing completely different jobs, everybody’s pulling in that same direction of trying to make Mississippi a healthier and better place.”