Thursday, October 20, 2011

How one man reshaped region's health care

The Observer's editorial for Friday:

Any list of the visionaries who transformed the Charlotte region in recent decades can’t end with Hugh McColl, Ed Crutchfield or Bill Lee. Harry Nurkin’s ability to build one of the largest and most respected public hospital systems in the United States from one struggling Charlotte outfit puts him in that pantheon as well.

Nurkin, who died last week of pancreatic cancer at age 67, was just 37 years old when he took over Charlotte Memorial Hospital in 1981. The hospital was in bad shape, physically, financially and qualitatively. Nurkin wasted no time turning it around, then setting a vision for growth.

He cut spending, improved bill collection, set high standards and held employees accountable. By 1983, he produced the hospital’s first long-range plan. It included incredibly ambitious goals, and Nurkin and his board and staff accomplished them: Creating a major medical center with a heart institute, a doctor’s office building, a new tower of private patient rooms and more.

During his 22 years as CEO, Nurkin grew the single hospital of 3,400 employees into a system with 27,000 employees. The organization’s budget grew 342 times larger, from $76 million to $2.6 billion. Today, Carolinas Healthcare System owns, leases or manages more than 30 hospitals, in addition to physician practices, nursing homes, urgent care centers and other facilities.

It wasn’t just about size. Nurkin also dramatically boosted the quality of care. His leadership helped attract doctors in a number of specialties. And he blended the ability to see the big picture with meticulous attention to detail. Under Nurkin, mats in the elevators were changed at midnight every night to say “Happy Wednesday,” or whatever day it was.

Nurkin was a competitor and a fighter, and made plenty of enemies. He found ways to punish those he thought had crossed him and his pugnacious style fueled a fierce rivalry with cross-town rival Presbyterian Hospital. That competition made Presbyterian stronger over the years, and it’s fair to say that Nurkin provoked improvements in health care across the Carolinas. Even those who sparred with him recognize him as a giant who benefited the industry and the Charlotte region.

Nurkin’s early and quiet departure from Carolinas Healthcare, amid questions about a relationship he was having with Libby Drury, then the system’s general counsel who became his second wife, prevented him from getting the acknowledgment he was due at the time. So let it be said now: Harry Nurkin was a genius and a visionary in the hospital field, and Charlotte and the region are a far better place because of his work.

Taylor Batten, on behalf of the editorial board