Allina Health CEO Dr. Penny Wheeler on retirement and rebuilding

Penny Wheeler, MD, was born at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, the same hospital she has overseen as CEO of Allina Health system since 2014. "I tell people that I've been here for 63 years," she told Becker's in October.

Dr. Wheeler will retire from the Minneapolis-based network at the end of the year. She shared her greatest challenges, proudest moments and plans for the future.

Editor's note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Question: How are you feeling about your retirement and what are your plans following your departure from Allina?

Dr. Penny Wheeler: I'm going to miss what I'm most proud of in the organization, which is the incredible people who have been through so much and still come out shining and caring for the communities that we serve in unbelievable ways. I have some trepidation, frankly, because I know that it's the mission and the people that I will miss. 

I'm going to allow myself to just be a bit. Life has been very full in lots of ways, so the best advice I'm getting is, "Just let yourself be a bit and see what evolves." But something will certainly surface, and I will do all possible to help our community heal. We're eight blocks away from where George Floyd was murdered, and there is rebuilding in a new way that focuses on justice and equity that is needed. So I will certainly do something to support this community that I've spent my life in.

Q: What have been some of your biggest challenges and successes as CEO?

PW: Certainly the last 19 months, for everybody, has been a big challenge, maybe for our geography, even a greater one. We not only had the pandemic, but we had George Floyd's murder and the subsequent unrest in our community, with hundreds and hundreds of businesses torched just outside my window.

We also had a shooting in our clinic that resulted in the loss of one of our treasured employees and the wounding of several others emotionally and physically. That clinic has just reopened recently with revisions, and we've made a lot of investments in making sure that we do all possible to ensure the safety of our employees. That's sacrosanct. 

And then I had a personal loss of the greatest magnitude as a mother, because my 21-year-old daughter died in January, just two weeks before the shooting occurred in February. So lots of personal and professional challenges.

I'd say then on the healthcare transformation side, we're really trying to lead the charge in supporting the health of our population and getting rewarded for it contractually. That's been an ongoing work in progress and a challenge we wanted to overcome, so we could make healthcare better for people.

I'm most proud of the care that we've given to people who have been traditionally left behind. Ninety-four percent of our mental health and addiction services are now delivered virtually. People really like it. It's very convenient for them. 

Our diversity, equity and inclusion efforts are a source of pride too. And we've looked at several roles that we play there. We are a big purchaser of services, so we've looked at how we can support minority-owned businesses and measure how many  we're supporting. We are also an employer of 29,000 people, so we've looked at how we are going to advance, recruit and retain people that are as diverse as our community is diverse. We're also investors, so we're looking at how we're impacting our community through our investing. And lastly, we're a community member. So two floors of our vacated corporate headquarters became a school that the community needed to have stable wifi and distanced learning with tutorial support when their households may not have had that, or they had parents who were essential workers.

Q: What advice do you have for other women who have aspirations of becoming healthcare leaders?

PW: I think women have had more reluctance to say "yes" to opportunities. Like, do I have the requisite skills? Will I be able to do it? So when you have an opportunity to serve in something you think is very purposeful work and somebody can see you in it, say yes. Before you think you can't, think you can. It is a privilege to impact lives. 

Q: What advice do you have for your successor, Lisa Shannon?

PW: I don't have to give her much because she's spectacular, so I couldn't be more delighted in handing the keys to the organization I love to somebody who is so values-oriented and so expert as Lisa Shannon. So, I don't know that I have much advice to give her, except — and the two of us always talk about this — that we must always anchor to who we're serving and why, and that's the advice we give to others. But that's already inherent in her DNA.

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