Dr. LouAnn Woodward is the first woman to lead the University of Missisippi Medical Center, the state’s only academic health center and largest hospital, having served as dean and CEO of UMMC since 2015. Since the pandemic, UMMC has pivoted to not only treat COVID-19, but also provide clinical and lab coronavirus testing for the state. As hospitals saw unprecedented drops in non-urgent care due to mandated cancellations for fear of coronavirus spread and to protect the health care system from unexpected patient surge, they’ve also been hit with unprecedented revenue shortfalls, which resulted in around 200 UMMC layoffs in May.

Dr. Woodward talked with Mississippi Today about leading the Medical Center through the pandemic and how silver lining lessons can be applied to medical practice moving forward. Editor’s note: Interview edited for length.


Mississippi Today: How has the pandemic challenged, changed or re-enforced your leadership style – I know it’s always different in hospital settings, but I’ve seen organizations shift work and family culture as this pandemic challenges everything we think we knew about work and health – can you speak to if it’s shifted culture at UMMC and your own leadership style?

Dr. LouAnn Woodward: This is certainly unprecedented territory that we’re in, from the standpoint from health care and health care workforce. We still had to maintain 24-7 operations and even at the point where most things were closed, we had to maintain those critical operations, such as hospital patients, critical care patients and the trauma systems. People didn’t stop having car wrecks, heart attacks and strokes and all of those things.

So while part of the organization shifted gears a little bit, another part of the organization went into overdrive, so it was indeed very challenging and the structure that it takes to have an academic medical center really is that 24-7, 365 kind of operation. We don’t shift down from that very easily honestly. It’s not a  structure that is built to be flexible as far as staffing and services available. Just even getting our mind around that was a challenge in and of itself. 

Mississippi Today: How has UMMC taken this moment to think about inclusion? It’s sort of two-fold with the pandemic disproportionately affecting people of color, but now with this moment of reckoning around police brutality, organizations are re-emphasizing commitment to looking at race disparities in a deeper way, can you speak to how UMMC is confronting that and steps y’all are taking to reduce bias in medical settings and support minority health care workers?

Dr. LouAnn Woodward: Clearly diversity and inclusion is very important across the board, but personally I can speak to it at the Medical Center. It is fascinating, it is interesting, it is encouraging the way that the nation and Mississippi …(have) the awareness and the willingness for people to say racism is wrong, and mistreating people is wrong, police brutality is wrong. I think by and large, the majority of policemen, I know so many, are wonderful people, and good people, and they put their life on the line for the citizens in the state and in the country every day, but just like everywhere else in every group of people, there are some bad apples. But I think the energy around this and the feeling is that the time to do something and the time to really try to address this is really way past time, but the time is now. 

I feel like there’s just a different kind of energy around the issue of race relations and injustices now that seems to be more to it than maybe in the past. 

If you look at the enrollment in our schools and the future of health care professionals, we have a diverse student body. There are a lot of women enrolling in the program, we have more than the national average of minority students that are enrolling in our programs here. In the School of Medicine we are particularly paying attention to our African American enrollment and working on that. While our numbers are better than the national average, if you just look at numbers and percentages – which of course do not tell the whole story, but it is something that is easy to compare from one area to another – we still think there is a lot of room for improvement because of the makeup of our state and the demographics of our state. 

So we are constantly striving toward a more balanced picture, but I think that you can look at the makeup of our deans and department chairs and other leaders here at the medical center and see a diverse group. It’s a constant work in progress – I don’t think anybody would say we’re satisfied and we feel like we’ve had all the progress and growth that we should have because that’s just not the case – but we’re making good progress and I’m proud of that.

Mississippi Today: How has the pandemic shifted health models – both medically and logistically – what have we learned that needs to be in place moving forward, both in how hospitals are run and how we as a state are understanding and looking at social determinants of health and health disparities, particularly among communities of color that we know have been impacted disproportionately?

Dr. LouAnn Woodward: I think that there have been some silver linings in all of his, as for some of the things that we have learned and things that we have had to quickly adjust to. I told somebody that I was so proud of our pathology and microbiology lab teams who literally in a matter of weeks developed a test for a virus that certainly we had heard of before – coronavirus is not a new virus – but it wasn’t on our radar as something that was important that we needed to be testing for. If in fact a year ago, I had talked to the teams about developing a test for this virus that we’re not thinking about too much and we need to be available to develop this in-house, I’m sure I would have been told it would take months if not a year, and in fact they did it in weeks. 

There have been a number of instances of things that normally would have taken some extended amount of time, people really focused their efforts and attention and we were able to accomplish things in a short order … Being able to reach out to patients in different ways, such as through using telehealth and other technology rather than the in-person visits I think gave us – we were already a big user of telehealth here – but that certainly took it to another level for us and in some areas where we had not been using it before, that gave us a different way to reach out to the patients and to connect to the patients, and to provide some care and some touch points.

Mississippi Today: What does this moment in time means for Mississippi and UMMC’s future – I know we’re all just taking it day by day, especially in hospital settings, but if there is something that could be learned from this, or make us better, what do you think that looks like for state and its relationship to medicine and science?

Dr. LouAnn Woodward: I’ve certainly been very thankful, pleased and grateful that our team has been available to step up and offer things that are important during the time of this particular crisis, whether it’s the critical care units and the higher level of patient care that we can provide, or the research side developing a test, or one of our faculty members determining how to build a ventilator out of locally available parts. 

These are things I think that show resourcefulness and show the willingness of the academic Medical Center to step up and to do what’s needed. So that has been good and I think as we go forward and we’re not in a pandemic situation, there is an undeniable connection between economic healthiness and viability, between jobs, education and health care. You cant tease them apart, they are interwoven and I think the future success and the future growth of our state will be best achieved when all of those parts and components work together – the education, the economics and the health care pieces of it. It’s sort of like the saying, we all rise together or we don’t – they’re just woven together in an individual’s health and financial stability, success and education, as well as that of an entire state’s. It’s been fun working with state leadership on a different level and I think it’s important as the state progresses that we continue that kind of relationship.

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Erica Hensley, a native of Atlanta, has been working as an investigative reporter focusing on public health for Mississippi Today since May 2018. She is a Knight Foundation fellow for our newsroom’s collaboration with local TV station WLBT and curates The Inform[H]er, our monthly women and girls’ newsletter. She is the 2019 recipient of the Doris O'Donnell Innovations in Investigative Journalism Fellowship. Erica received a bachelor’s in print journalism and political science from the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a master’s in health and medical journalism from the University of Georgia Grady College for Journalism and Mass Communication.