If you’re a patient at the Detroit Medical Center – an expectant mother about to give birth or a middle-aged man battling the coronavirus – you probably don’t even think about who the hospital’s CEO is. You’re aware of the doctors, nurses and the hands-on staff that oversee your care and bring you ice chips or check your vitals. But the CEO? That person seems so far removed from who you are and the care that you need.
And that might be true at a lot of hospitals. But not at the DMC. Audrey Gregory, Ph.D., R.N. is not your typical CEO. Your first clue is the initials behind her name – R.N. She started her career in medicine not in the boardroom but in the exam room, as a nurse.
“People come to a hospital when they are at their most vulnerable, and it’s our job to understand that, care for them and lift them up,” says Dr. Gregory. “When I worked as a nurse, I always remembered, ‘I’m a human being taking care of other human beings.’ Now, as an administrator, ‘I’m a human being, leading other human beings, taking care of human beings.’” When you remember that as your true north, it definitely impacts how you treat people.”
She also sees herself in the community that DMC has served for more than 150 years. When Dr. Gregory was appointed to the role of CEO in January, she became the first Black woman to serve in that position. That fact and the responsibility that comes with it are not lost on her.
“My mom was an old school lady, and she always said, ‘you need to fit into who you are.’ I know who I am. I am a woman of color. I happen to be a mom too. And I happen to be a clinician. All of these influence me and the way I see the world,” she says.
That unique perspective – and her years of experience in healthcare, which includes more than 15 years working in senior leadership roles at Tenet Healthcare – made her a perfect choice to serve on Gov. Whitmer’s recently-convened Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities. Dr. Gregory says this task force is the real deal with a clearly defined goal of identifying the causes of racial disparity and making recommendations on how to fix them.
“Gov. Whitmer was ahead of her time with this initiative and Lt. Governor Gilchrist is very present and demonstrating great leadership on our mission,” she says. “We know that we have to remove healthcare barriers and the limitations of healthcare access. We know there is an implicit bias that can affect the quality of care people of color get. I’m proud to be a part of identifying actions we can do to change these issues and others.”
It’s work that carries through in her role as the head of the DMC too. “Every day at the DMC we’re working to ensure that we are an example of healthcare access and equality. We are working to continue to build trust in the community we serve,” she says.
“When I walk the halls and talk to patients, people say to me ‘This is my hospital’ or ‘I was a Hutzel baby.’ That means something. The community has trusted the DMC to care for them throughout their lives. It gives us all a lot of humility in living up to that responsibility.”
That love and loyalty is a two-way street. “I have been so struck by how much DMC staff loves Detroit. Our team has incredible ownership and has demonstrated such resilience during a really challenging time,” Dr. Gregory says.
“When we staffed the fair grounds to administer coronavirus testing for the city, we had volunteers from every department of the DMC. Our VP of Finance was a runner. He took great pride in that role, going back and forth getting supplies or doing errands to help the medical staff. It was an amazing team effort.”
The physically and emotionally exhausting work of caring for patients during a pandemic hasn’t been easy for the DMC’s staff. But this CEO with the heart of a nurse has a plan for that too.
“Working in healthcare is a career, but it’s also a calling, so they know the job. But this has been extraordinary circumstances and very difficult,” she says. “I have worried about the mental health and well-being of our employees, so I’m working with psychologists to help our staff get through it. And we will, as a hospital and as a community.”
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Previous positions: CEO of DMC’s adult central campus hospitals; Market CEO, COO, CEO of St. Francis Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.; Chief Nursing Officer, COO and CEO of Placentia-Linda Hospital in Southern California and Chief Nursing Officer, Delray Medical Center
Recognitions: Three Tenet Circle of Excellence awards; Diversity Champion from Tennessee Hospital Association
Education: Ph.D. in global leadership; master’s in healthcare administration; master’s in nursing
Family: Husband Owen, her high school boyfriend from Jamaica where she is from; two sons and a daughter.
What she loves about Detroit: “Detroit has been so warm and welcoming. There is so much diversity, even among people of color. And the food is amazing!”