As a girl in the small, rural farm community of Wadley, Georgia, Ruth Brinkley grew accustomed to hearing that she should someday become a nurse. She was raised by her grandparents and that was their vision of her future. It was not what she had in mind. “Of course, when you’re young you always want to be something different from what everybody tells you that you should be,” said the woman who today leads arguably one of the most complex healthcare institutions in the United States.
Brinkley, as CEO of KentuckyOne Health, oversees a statewide network of more than 3,000 physicians providing care in some 200 facilities, the result of the 2012 merger of University of Louisville Hospital/James Graham Brown Cancer Center, Jewish Hospital & St. Mary’s HealthCare and Saint Joseph Health System.
To call her typical day demanding makes light of understatement. Yet, there was a time in her life when Ruth Brinkley could have found herself on another path, altogether. “After I had gone to college and had a good time for two years, I almost flunked out. I was on academic probation. I had to do some soul searching about what I was going to do. I was living in Chicago at the time. I grew up in Georgia and was determined not to go back to the farm. I didn’t want to go back home as a failure so I thought, maybe I should look at this nursing thing again. I did, and found it to be a complete joy.”
That was some powerful determination. Brinkley went on to earn Bachelor and Master of Science degrees in nursing from De Paul University and then launched into nearly four decades of healthcare experience working in a range of organizations including private, public, academic and community-based hospital systems.
She has served as associate executive director, chief nurse executive and associate dean of clinical practice at the University of Alabama Hospitals in Birmingham; president and chief executive officer of Memorial Health Care System in Chattanooga; an executive with Catholic Health Initiatives; and president and chief executive officer of Southern Arizona’s largest health care system, Carondelet Health Network. She also held executive roles at health care organizations in St. Louis and Chicago. As a senior consultant with CSC Healthcare, Brinkley led large scale organizational transformation projects with many major academic medical centers and community hospitals in the US and Canada.
As it turned out, that particular portfolio would provide her with the credentials best suited to lead an organization formed by integrating such a variety of institutions: KentuckyOne Health. “This is probably the most complex health system in the country,” she observed. “Our heritage is Catholic, Jewish, academic and secular. So it’s a very complex mix. Each organization brings a slightly different angle to healthcare services and they bring their own cultures.”
Those philosophical differences might seem, in some cases, irreconcilable. But in Brinkley’s view, there is something more fundamentally important. “We try to respect all of those philosophies and positively leverage each. When you sift through all of it, patients want to be respected; they want to be taken care of, they want us to keep them safe and they want us to be nice to them.” Brinkley is a high-powered executive now. But she also remains a registered nurse, a role that informs her philosophy and style as an administrator.
Healthcare is very much in the news these days as the Affordable Care Act rolls out across the country. Recently appointed as a member of the Kentucky Health Benefit Exchange Advisory Board, Brinkley is playing a role in how the massive new law takes shape and form in Kentucky. “The complexity of the Affordable Care Act and how it’s going to actually play out in real life is still somewhat of an unknown,” She said. “What I am pleased about is that it allows more people to have access to health care services.”
Brinkley noted that her youth in rural Georgia and lack of access to health care now informs her view of the ACA. “Our state is very rural. We have a fair amount of poverty and those who are marginalized and need health care services. The Affordable Care Act allows those people to get services. Is the act perfect? No it is not perfect and I don’t know of any legislation that has been developed that is perfect, quite frankly.” Most important, she believes, is the act’s potential to influence changes in behaviors. “There is a shift from acute care services to population health management - keeping people healthy.”
Of particular concern to Brinkley, and a cause that serves to forge a close relationship with the Kentucky chapter of the American Heart Association, is the state’s dismal national standing for the health of its citizens. “Heart disease is the nation’s number one cause of death and our state is among the ten with the worst health indicators. Just being aware and concerned about reducing the incidence of heart disease is one thing, but I’m particularly interested in the women who die in our state each day from heart disease and stroke. On average, 16 women in our state die each day.”
More than half of the residents of Kentucky are medically under served, Brinkley noted, and there is a growing scarcity of physicians across the state. Reversing that gap in care and addressing heart-health are, according to its CEO, KentuckyOne priorities. “We do more heart care than anyone in the state and we do it well. We want to move up earlier detection and prevention of heart disease. We want to be able to detect and address these illnesses before they get such a foothold in people’s lives.”
Although Ruth Brinkley’s official bio states that in her spare time she likes to garden, travel and write, the concept of spare time in this busy executive’s life is, these days, a faded memory. Her green thumb is limited to container gardening and travel is mostly work-related. She has recently written, but even that effort, an extensive article for the Journal of the American College of Health Care Executives, was all about the profession she once nearly avoided as an act of youthful independence.
A far cry from returning to a farm life in Wadley, Georgia, Ruth Brinkley today is often singled out for her accomplishments. In 2010 she was recognized as one of Modern Healthcare Magazine’s Top 25 Minority Executives in Healthcare and also named one of the Top Two most influential women in Southern Arizona. She is the recipient of numerous awards including the National Association of Health Services Executives’ Senior Healthcare Executive Award, the Chattanooga Area Manager of the Year Award and Girls, Inc.’s “Unbought and Unbossed” Award for ethical leadership.
A grandmother’s hunch that there was something quite special about the little girl in her care, turned out to have been very wise, indeed.