Three longtime hospital executives share lessons from the top

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Will Ferniany CEO, UAB Health System

As the coronavirus pandemic raged across Alabama and around the world, it’s been a crucial year for health care leadership. Across the state, hospitals rallied
to educate their communities and care for the sick. As the pandemic winds to a close, three leading Alabama hospitals also will undergo transitions in leadership. After building their hospitals and hospital systems over the past several years and guiding them through a major health crisis, Will Ferniany, CEO of UAB Health System; David Spillers, CEO of Huntsville Hospital Health System; and Mike Warren, CEO of Children’s Hospital of Alabama, will all retire in 2021.

the late 1980s and early 1990s, he returned to take the helm in 2008. 

Since then, UAB Health System has changed significantly, almost quadrupling in size. The system now includes 11 hospitals and manages or is affiliated with a number of others. As a $5.5 billion hospital system, UAB hasn’t just grown in size or revenue; it also has boosted patient satisfaction scores significantly during the past 15 years. 

UAB views its role as a health care provider to the state of Alabama, not just the Birmingham area, Ferniany says. For instance, during his tenure, UAB launched the Rural Hospital Resource to help manage seven rural hospitals across the state. Through UAB’s Cancer Network, the hospital also serves as a partner to other hospitals across the state to help improve care throughout Alabama.  

The UAB system also took a leadership role in fighting COVID-19. It developed early testing sites; its infectious disease specialists advised state government and organizations; vaccinated more than 200,000 people, paying special attention to making sure its vaccination sites were equitable. “COVID dramatically pointed out how health disparity impacts lives, and we are taking action to decrease health disparities,”
Ferniany says. 

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The system recently created a new vice-president level position to oversee community health equity. UAB also took over operations of Cooper Green Mercy Hospital for Jefferson County in 2019. “We are putting our resources and engagement toward improving health equity throughout our community and across the state,” Ferniany says.

Looking ahead, Ferniany expects to see UAB Health System continue to improve health care for the people of Birmingham and Alabama, citing a new alliance with St. Vincent’s and a consistent ranking as one of the most sophisticated hospitals in the country.

“The thing that makes UAB great is the interface between teaching, research and clinical efforts,” Ferniany says. “The continuation of strong alignment among those three missions is the future of UAB.” 

Personally, Ferniany plans to take some time to travel and spend time with his wife and grandchildren, but he expects to re-engage professionally at some point. When he looks back at his career (so far), he says he’s most enjoyed the ability to help people and work with great caregivers. 

“It’s a privilege to have the ability to help change the population as a whole and make impacts that affect people’s lives on a daily basis,” he says.

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David Spillers CEO, Huntsville Hospital Health System

Spillers began serving as CEO at Huntsville Hospital 15 years ago. The hospital has grown substantially during his tenure, from one hospital to a system that owns 10 hospitals and manages two more. The system employs almost 16,000 people. 

Leading the growth and development of Huntsville Hospital Health System has been rewarding, Spillers says. “I believe the system we have put in place is positioned well to take care of north Alabama for many years in the future,” he says. “In addition to developing our hospital system, I am incredibly impressed with the talent we have been able to grow and recruit. It is an outstanding team, and they work unbelievably well together. That was never more apparent than this past year while we were dealing with COVID-19.”

Spillers didn’t set out to be a hospital executive. Early in his career, Spillers wrote software for the health care industry and eventually went to work at a hospital as a chief information officer. He found it very rewarding to work in the health care environment, so he never had a desire to leave, he says. Over the years, he served as CIO, CFO, COO, and other positions in hospital leadership. 

One of the things Spillers has enjoyed most about his career in hospital administration is the close relationships he has developed with peers around the country. “The number of people running health systems across the country is actually a relatively small group,” he says. “We are all dealing with very similar issues, and I found out, throughout my career, your peers are more than willing to help you when you need them. Those relationships are important. I think health care attracts people who care about other people, and it shows in the relationships you develop over the course of a career.”

As for his future plans, Spillers says his first priority will be helping to lead the transition at Huntsville Hospital, to help make sure the system and its team members will continue to be successful. Beyond that, he plans to spend more time with family and friends and work on his golf game. “If I get bored,” he says, “then I will find some new challenges to get me over it.”

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Mike Warren CEO, Children’s Hospital of Alabama

Warren is a lawyer by training. He spent 12 years at Bradley Arant in Birmingham before he left to serve as CEO for Energen, one of his law clients. After almost 25 years as a chief executive and two decades as a board member of Children’s Hospital, he was recruited to lead the hospital in 2007. 

When Warren arrived, Children’s was in the final stages of reviewing the hospital’s needs for the next 10 to 20 years, a process that resulted in the decision to build a major new facility to expand capacity. Soon after his arrival, Warren began leading a $400 million project to build the Benjamin Russell Hospital. The construction of the Russell Hospital made it possible to locate pediatric cardiac surgery, including heart transplants, and liver and kidney transplants, all to one location, “making us a truly comprehensive facility,” Warren says.

While Children’s has had a longtime affiliation with UAB, it is not part of UAB but is a standalone, independent hospital, Warren says. Many of the physicians who practice at Children’s also teach at the UAB School of Medicine. Part of leading the hospital involves the challenges of managing a complex relationship with UAB, the medical school, the community and the entire state. 

For example, Children’s serves kids from every county in the state each year. From the counties that are the farthest away or the most rural, the hospital typically serves about 50 to 100 children each year. In addition, Children’s serves kids from 44 different states and several foreign countries, especially in specialties like transplant surgeries and congenital heart surgery. 

“Our primary focus is the state of Alabama,” Warren says. “We feel it is our mission to provide top care to the children of the state.” Two-thirds of the hospital’s patients are Medicaid recipients, and Warren says he’s been surprised over the years that the politics of health care, such as Medicaid funding, are just as complex as the delivery of health care services.

After careers in the legal industry, energy industry and the health care industry, Warren has learned that all three have something in common: “They all depend heavily on people,” he says. “It amazes me how committed our people are to children, from housekeeper to brain surgeon, all are committed to serving the sick and injured children of Alabama.” 

Looking ahead, Warren says he’s proud of the work that has been done to expand Children’s with the Russell building and the Lee building, which brought back home many employees who had been required to move off campus. Those new facilities have prepared the hospital to continue its mission well into the future. “We built the Russell Hospital for patients whose mothers have not yet been born,” he says. “It’s a facility that will serve the public for 50, 60, 70 years. I see Children’s as an important part of health care in the state for many years to come.” 

This story appears in the July 2021 issue of Business Alabama magazine. 

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