Chad Brown’s face wasn’t yet known as that of the new president of Wake Forest Baptist Health—Wilkes Medical Center when he decided to walk around the hospital on his first day here to get a feel for the place.

With his ID badge in his pocket, Brown strolled down the hospital halls like a secret shopper and was impressed with how staff reached out to assist him that day in February.

“People weren’t looking down. There was a lot of energy and a lot of warmth. A lot of warmth,” added Brown, 46, in an interview in mid-May.

Since then, he’s been struck by the pride in Wilkes Medical Center, among both staff and people in the community. “I mean pride in a good sense because pride can have a negative connotation…. And it’s the sense of community here,” Brown added.

“As I’ve gone around meeting the staff, I’ve heard a lot of great stories, even especially tenured individuals who may have left the hospital and then came back. There was a reason they came back,” he said.

“And when I’m out in the community, people ask how’s the hospital doing and what’s going on at the hospital. Like a lot of rural areas, it’s one of the pillars of the community.”

Brown is president of both Wake Forest Baptist Health—Wilkes Medical Center and Wake Forest Baptist Health—Davie Medical Center in Bermuda Run, which opened in 2017. The county hospital in Mocksville closed that same year. Winston-Salem-based Wake Forest Baptist built and owns the 50-bed Davie Medical Center and entered into a 30-year lease of the 130-bed Wilkes Medical Center from its owner, the Town of North Wilkesboro, in July 1, 2017.

Brown’s additional comments during the interview with the Wilkes Journal-Patriot in mid-May follow:

• Where are you from originally? Tell us about your family.

Brown: “I’m from Knoxville, Tenn., and spent my high school years in Texas, right outside of Houston. My family is originally from Tennessee, my parents and in-laws are there, so most of my family still lives there. I consider East Tennessee home.” Brown’s mother was a public school teacher and principal and his father worked in the human resources department of a chemical company. His parents grew up just outside Johnson City, Tenn. Brown and his wife, Jeannine, live in Davie County and have a 20-year-old son, an 18-year-old daughter about to go to college and a 16-year-old son in high school. Brown’s wife has Whittington and other relatives from the Millers Creek and Reddies River areas. He has a bachelor of science degree in biology from the University of Tennessee, a master’s degree in healthcare/business administration and is in the doctoral program in health leadership at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

• How did your experiences growing up influence what you do now?

Brown: “My parents always instilled hard work in me. I got into this profession by working part-time at a local hospital in Knoxville while attending the University of Tennessee. I just really fell in love with it after that, just working my way through undergraduate school— making connections and meeting different people. I developed a relationship with a mentor at that time and was a radiology transporter. I’ve done a little bit of everything. I’ve worked in the business office and have been a registrar. I’ve been a billing clerk. I’ve tried to get experience in every aspect and all of these have been kind of smaller, community hospitals” in Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia and Florida. Prior to joining the Wake Forest Baptist system five years ago, Brown was CEO of Person Memorial Hospital in Roxboro for nearly three years. He said these experiences provided a strong background in rural healthcare.

• How does it work with you being president of both Wilkes Medical Center and Davie Medical Center?

Brown: “First of all, no one could do this without a great team—there is a great team here in Wilkes and a great team at Davie. That allows me to share responsibilities. I don’t have a set schedule, but most of my time is up here” at Wilkes. “I would say three or four days are typically up here and that will continue. Wilkes is a bigger shop than Davie. I’m always on, so to speak—I never clock out. I don’t think this is unique (a person being president of two hospitals) to Wake or Wilkes. The fact that Davie has about half the number of employees of Wilkes allows me to do it as well.” He said Wilkes Medical Center (with about 650 fulltime and part-time employees) has a senior leadership team in charge on site when he isn’t here.

• Where is most of your attention currently focused at Wilkes Medical Center?

Brown: “Most of my attention (in the first 90 days at Wilkes Medical Center) has been on developing relationships. All of my career has basically been in the smaller community hospital setting so I certainly know and understand the relationships the hospitals have with the community. I’ve had many opportunities to get involved in the community. But first and foremost is the importance of developing relationships with our employees—what’s on their minds and asking them a lot of questions.”

• What is Wilkes Medical Center’s role in the Wake Forest system?

Brown: “I’ve had the same discussion with Davie. What is our role in the great scheme of things? I can tell you it’s to keep the resources we need here and how to keep patients local…. Knowing and understanding the needs and the demographics and what additional resources can be brought locally to keep patients here…. That is my number one focus. Do we always get it right? Absolutely not, but that is the mindset, the culture and the strategy. Folks want to stay local.” He also cited the goal of strengthening the relationship between the people of Wilkes and Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center through services not offered at Wilkes Medical Center. “There is a direct link and a systematic approach.” Brown emphasized the importance of making the hospital convenient, efficient and friendly to patients amid all the challenges of navigating through the complexities of healthcare.

• What are plans and greatest needs in the way of physician recruitment and new services at Wilkes Medical Center?

Brown: “We will always, always be recruiting physicians and providers.” He said plans for specialist recruitment are still being developed but there have been initial successes. “In April, we brought in Dr. David Kunkle as a urologist and Dr. Laura Foster has been a great addition, especially for the female health aspect…. We will be able to talk about new services in the future that I can’t talk about right now. It’s about appropriately keeping healthcare local.” Brown cited the addition of fulltime athletic trainers at the four traditional Wilkes high schools last year, employed by Wake Forest Baptist, as a great success for wellness and building relationships with the community, as well as the opening of a cardiac rehab center at Wilkes Medical Center in December.

• How does Wilkes Medical Center work with Wilkes Community College and what opportunities to you see in that area?

Brown: “Dr. Jeff Cox (WCC president) sits on our community advisory board and we’ve had these discussions. He has asked me, ‘What do you need from our future students as an employer?’ And I’m asking him kind of the same questions. ‘What do you need from the hospital? What kind of relationship do you need?’” Brown cited existing training programs provided as a partnership between the hospital and WCC. “This hospital, as I see it, would not be able to survive without that support” of the community college. He said the same is true of Davie Medical Center and the College of Davidson and Davie Counties. “But it starts before then. I’ve had the same conversations with Mark Byrd (Wilkes school superintendent) in terms of going into the schools. We have middle school and high school students who rotate here just to get exposed to opportunities in healthcare.”

•How is Wilkes Medical Center doing financially?

Brown: “We are on stable footing—we really are financially stable.” He added that he is very conscious of the rural healthcare market because of where he has worked in the past. Brown said Wilkes Medical Center is fulfilling the role that Wake Forest Baptist officials sought with the lease of the hospital. “Being part of a larger health system obviously is important from the standpoint of sharing resources and synergies.”

• What would expanding Medicaid eligibility statewide do for Wilkes Medical Center?

Brown: “I don’t have the dollar figures in front of me, but certainly we have modeled that and there are other dynamics in Raleigh that could potentially have an impact on that. In other states that have expanded (Medicaid eligibility), if you take the political piece out of it, it certainly has been a positive with their growth. That would be a real, huge benefit” for Wilkes Medical Center. “Expanding Medicaid eligibility would allow more people to be covered in our area and encourage more people to get preventative healthcare—so it would improve health and help reduce overall healthcare costs.”

• How might the Wake Forest-Atrium Health partnership impact Wilkes Medical Center?

Brown: “A lot is to be determined, but we see it as a huge positive… in economies of scale and lots of opportunities. We are excited about it and a lot more details are forthcoming. As the MOU (memorandum of understanding) is signed and further relationships are developed, I’ll be able to share more. For this community, it should be a positive.”

• What are some of the biggest challenges at Wilkes Medical Center?

“There are always challenges” in rural healthcare. “Recruitment is always a need and again that relationship with the community is so vital—making sure we are able to recruit and retain great staff. Physician recruitment will always be a need. There are headwinds in the whole rural healthcare landscape that are beyond the local dynamics. There’s Medicare managed care that’s coming and there is always going to be pressure on reimbursements. Our mission with the cultural transformation of healthcare—going kind of from volume to value as they say—and meeting the health needs of our community. That’s a change in mindset and Wake has done an outstanding job with that. We have a great partner” in Wake Forest Baptist.

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