Published on March 31, 2022

UNC Health CEO Outlines lessons learned from pandemic

Photo of Dr. Burks, CEO of UNC Health

The CEO of UNC Health told a gathering of the Rocky Mount Area Chamber of Commerce of much having been learned about health care in the aftermath of the depths of the coronavirus pandemic and of health care being in a good place now.

Dr. Wesley Burks was the keynote speaker for the pro-business organization’s 2022 banquet Tuesday evening at Nash Community College’s Brown Auditorium.

What Burks had to say would be of interest locally because the Nash County-owned hospital in Rocky Mount bears the name Nash UNC Health Care, which is a local hospital authority and an affiliate of UNC Health, which is based in Chapel Hill.

Burks is from Arkansas, with a set of his grandparents having lived in the hills of the Ozark Mountains and miles from access to medical care, so health care beyond metropolitan areas also is important to him.

Burks made clear to the Chamber gathering there will not be a “let’s go back to what it was like before COVID” in health care, which he noted is a good thing.

Burks more specifically said that, regarding health care, “The paradigm for a hundred years has been: It’s built around a hospital and a clinic and a provider, a doctor.”

Burks said health care is now being built around the person.

He said rather than treating people when they are sick and when they become ill, the question is: “How do you help someone become healthy or stay healthy?”

With a bit of humor, he spoke about learning more about Amazon Plus, Hulu and Netflix and of watching more British mystery shows than he ever thought possible in his whole life.

He said his point was that he and his wife, with computer-powered tablets and internet-powered television, could watch shows when and where they wanted.

He said health care is increasingly like that and told the audience many of them probably received health care virtually during the pandemic.
“You sat in your office or your home. You didn’t go wait. You didn’t go drive 45 miles to see someone — and it worked,” he said.

Burks also said that amid the pandemic, UNC Health launched a program so a person can receive acute care in his or her residence.

Burks said in the Research Triangle area, if a person enters a UNC Health facility needing to be hospitalized, he or she can either be admitted or UNC Health will bring the hospital to the person’s home and virtually provide certain services there.

Should that person choose the latter, Burks said, the patient can eat his or her own food and does not have a hospital staffer waking him or her up for checking in the middle of the night and the patient’s family members do not have to go by vehicle to see the patient at the hospital.

“And it works,” Burks said. “People are glad to do it for the obvious reasons.”

He also spoke of the issue of mental health having rapidly accelerated amid the pandemic, particularly among children and adolescents.

Burks said if an adolescent recently was experiencing a mental health crisis in North Carolina, the only place he or she had to go was a hospital emergency department, where he or she may end up staying there not for hours, but for days to weeks waiting for care.

He said he and his UNC Health colleagues were able to provide a system in which a psychiatrist can virtually take care of the adolescent, do an assessment and work with the emergency physicians on hand.

He emphasized the psychiatrist can make a diagnosis and help the adolescent decide whether he or she can remain at his or her home, needs daytime treatment or needs to be hospitalized.

Burks, whose prior experience is in children’s health, has been the CEO of UNC Health since 2019. UNC’s network is comprised of 15 hospitals from Hendersonville in the west to New Bern in the east.

Burks told the Chamber gathering he works with a team of almost 40,000 people and told of UNC Health in 2021 having taken care of more than three million people in North Carolina and beyond.

Burks said he and his fellow UNC Health officials sat down at the beginning of the pandemic and decided there would be two guiding principles dictating everything UNC Health did: “How do we take the best care of patients that had COVID as they came in? And how do we take care of each other?”

He told of there having been more than 750,000 tests to find out if people had the coronavirus, of there having been more than 500,000 vaccinations against the coronavirus and of there having recently been more than 11,000 monoclonal antibody treatments of people who had COVID to keep them out of hospitals.

He also told of UNC Health at any point in time working on 500 leads nationwide to obtain massive amounts of protective face masks and of his one day having had the chance to write a check for $30 million to try to purchase five million masks, only for UNC Health to be outbid the night before.

“That was a pretty regular occurrence,” he said. “We had 25 people working full time just to find masks that we could possibly buy.”

Burks said, fortunately, others, including textile industries in North Carolina, stepped in and started making masks and he also referred to experts at N.C. State University having come up with new material to make masks.

Burks also said he and others in health care could see that inequities in health care were occurring and spoke of the outfitting of a large vehicle designed for health services personnel to be able to go out into rural areas to see people that were getting tested and vaccinated.

At the same time, he said, he saw that getting online to secure an appointment for his wife to be vaccinated was quite difficult. She eventually was able to be vaccinated in the Orange County seat of Hillsborough.

He said they subsequently found out people from Raleigh were coming over to get vaccinated because of their access to computers and their wherewithal to go online repeatedly to secure an appointment.

He said a readjustment was made to work better with local and faith-based leaders and to also make automated phone calls with pre-recorded messages to people with telephone landlines to better reach out to them.

Burks also told the Chamber gathering that for more than half a century he has kept the key to what had been the home of that set of his grandparents in the Ozarks and that he has a lot of good memories of the place.

“The reason I keep it now is that it reminds me of who I am, what I stand for and what I do,” he said.