One in a series of interviews with Modern Healthcare's Top 25 Women in Healthcare for 2017. Furst Group and NuBrick Partners, which comprise the companies of MPI, sponsor the awards.
Respected healthcare executive Ruth Brinkley isn’t sure what’s going to happen next in her career, but she says one thing is certain: “I’m not retiring. This is a very exciting time in healthcare and I want to be a part of it!”
Weeks after announcing she was stepping down from her post as CEO of the KentuckyOne Health system, Brinkley said she was looking forward to some R&R before she returned to advise new interim chief executive Chuck Neumann for a couple months.
“I’m not even thinking about what I’m going to do next,” she says. “I’m taking some time off for a river cruise in Europe. There’s nothing like water to wash over your soul. It’s the first extended time off I’ve had in a long time.”
Brinkley says she will take the last quarter of 2017 to think about what she wants to do next in a lengthy career that has seen her go from a segregated, rural small town in Georgia to multiple honors as one of Modern Healthcare’s Top 25 Women in Healthcare. But with an eye on the future, she doesn’t have regrets about the KentuckyOne experience as three health systems attempted to merge – St. Joseph Health System, Jewish Hospital & St. Mary’s HealthCare, and the University of Louisville Hospital and James Graham Brown Cancer Center. “The governor did not approve the merger,” Brinkley says. “He didn’t want a state entity being managed by a church organization.”
The end result was that St. Joseph and Jewish Hospital merged into KentuckyOne, which operated University Hospital until this year, when university administrators said they wanted to reclaim the reins.
“Integrating these organizations into a statewide system was a great vision; it was laudable,” says Brinkley, whose veteran experience was sought after by Catholic
Health Initiatives to navigate a complex deal. “At the end of the day, the university wanted to go in a different direction.”
While KentuckyOne is in talks to divest Jewish Hospital and other Louisville assets, Brinkley has some advice for her fellow executives as the industry endures a volatile time.
“The environment is going to get tougher,” she says. “We know there are going to be significant changes in healthcare, and I believe it’s incumbent on all of us to exercise care and due diligence as we move forward. We are all moving from volume to value, yet, I don’t believe that anyone has quite figured out the full equation to make that work.”
And, despite industry initiatives to improve the numbers of diverse executives in the leadership ranks, she believes the climate also is getting tougher on that front.
“I am seeing a retrenchment, unfortunately,” she says. “I think women continue to advance in our industry, but I’m not certain about progress for people of color. I believe some of the advancements were made because organizations felt it was
important to promote diverse executives to address disparities and equity of care. I’m concerned that I’m seeing some erosion in that area.”
Corporate life was far from Brinkley’s thoughts growing up in a small Georgia town. A physician would provide yearly immunizations for children, but Brinkley never had a physical until she went off to college. She was raised by her grandmother, a teacher, who decided that Brinkley should become a nurse.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I went to college, but I didn’t want to be what anyone told me I had to be,” says Brinkley with a laugh. “So, I rebelled against being a nurse.”
In time, she came around. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing at DePaul University and ascended through the ranks. Health systems are increasingly looking to clinicians to lead organizations as well as medical groups, and Brinkley says her background has been a profound asset for her.
“I firmly believe that I am a better leader because of my clinical background and experience,” she says. “I believe that the movement from clinical provider to organizational/enterprise leader is best done progressively, adding additional education and experiences along the way.”
But the transition isn’t always as easy as some clinicians think it will be, she warns.
“For those who truly desire to lead, it can be a challenge to learn the business and operations language and processes. In order to be successful, it is vital that
leaders keep the core business in mind. It is difficult to separate the enterprise from clinical processes and outcomes.”
In the same way, she says, it can sometimes be difficult to separate the politics of the day from the healthcare needs of patients.
“But I believe in the American spirit. We will figure it out.”
SIDEBAR: A grandmother's influence looms large
Ruth Brinkley’s first and most powerful role model was her grandmother, who raised her from an infant.
“She was 4-foot-11 and not even 100 pounds soaking wet. I was 5-foot-6 by the time I was in sixth grade, but I thought she was a giant,” Brinkley says. “I had great respect for her.”
In a time when segregation still plagued the South, and when women were sometimes treated with less than respect, Brinkley’s grandmother taught her many leadership lessons, foremost of which was courage.
Although she was a teacher, her husband was a farmer. When Brinkley’s grandfather died, her grandmother could have lost the farm – the crop had been planted but the seed and supplies usually weren’t paid back to the store until the harvest came in.
“She didn’t know anything about the business side of the farm,” Brinkley remembers. “She had to quickly learn the business and make sure that people didn’t try to take advantage of her because she was a woman. She would say all the time, ‘I may be little, but I’m not dumb.’ ”
Other key lessons, Brinkley says, were these:
- Collaboration. “You can’t really accomplish a lot on your own; you have to build teams. She took in a number of other people’s children, but we were all a part of her family.”
- Use what you have. “Nobody has all the gifts and all the talents, but you learn to use whatever you have and leverage that.”
Brinkley took much of the wisdom she learned from her grandmother and turned it into a children’s book called Grandma Said.
“She taught me my worth as a woman and as a woman leader,” Brinkley says. “I’m sure there were times when she must have been afraid and alone, but I never saw her flinch.”