Corner Office: Why Nancy Howell Agee thinks healthcare needs a new path

Nancy Howell Agee, MSN, BSN, has served as CEO of Roanoke, Va.-based Carilion Clinic since 2011, and she brings a wealth of experience to the role. 

As CEO, Ms. Agee helms a $2.4 billion nonprofit integrated health system that includes seven hospitals, home health, imaging services, pharmacies, urgent care, freestanding surgical clinics, and a physician group with more than 1,000 employed physicians. 

She previously served as president and CEO and executive vice president and COO of Carilion Clinic. She is also a past chair of the American Hospital Association's board of trustees.

Here, Ms. Agee answers Becker's seven Corner Office questions.  

Question: What piqued your interest in healthcare?

Nancy Howell Agee: For my 5th birthday, I was given a puppy and a nurse's uniform. I've never been without either since! Later, as a teenager, I was diagnosed with a bone tumor in my knee. I underwent several surgeries and lengthy hospitalizations. It was a scary time. I remember the compassionate nurses and doctors who cared for me and I wanted to be like them. I began as a candy striper, then went on to earn a nursing degree and went to work for the same hospital where I was a patient and, coincidentally, where I also was born.  

Q: What do you enjoy most about Virginia?

NA: I've spent my entire career at Carilion. The place I love, the people I love and the work I love all happen to be located in the same place. I'm not as boring as I sound, though. I do get out of town once in a while, but I always come back home to Virginia, where I was born and raised. Our Blue Ridge Mountains make it one of the most beautiful spots in the country, and people are friendly. 

Q: If you could eliminate one of the healthcare industry's problems overnight, which would it be?

NA: The cost of care — affordability. For too many Americans, medical costs pose a hardship. Many don't fill prescriptions or cut pills in half because of the cost or put off needed care. The path we are on is not working. We must consider our patients' ability to afford their care just as passionately as we do their ability to access care that is safe and of high quality. Hospitals and health systems aren't the only stakeholders when it comes to affordability, but we can be a catalyst, promoting healthcare affordability and quality, and collaborating with patients, insurers, vendors, employers, elected officials and the pharmaceutical industry.

Q: What is your greatest skill or talent outside the C-suite?

NA: I'm a fast reader and enjoy reading a wide range of titles — both fiction and nonfiction — across a breadth of topics. 

Q: How do you revitalize yourself?

NA: In my spare time, I enjoy cooking, walking my dog Henry and spending time with my family that now includes two precious young grandchildren.

Q: What's the one piece of advice you remember most clearly?

NA: "Take your work seriously. Yourself, not so much." Rather than worrying and stressing yourself about everything, it's about learning to be secure in the belief that things will unfold just fine. 

Q: What do you consider your greatest achievements at Carilion so far?

NA: Reorganizing from a hospital system to integrated care delivery was by far the most ambitious undertaking of my career. The process began in 2007 and we initially faced significant community opposition, which was hard overcome. As part of the reorganization, we formed an allopathic medical school and research institute with Virginia Tech. Both have been wildly successful and contributed to our broader enterprise, as well as our region's economy. Our work with Virginia Tech has since grown to include venture funds and development projects. We also have a partnership with Radford University for educating nursing and allied health professionals. 

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