A Chief Medical Officer's Legacy

For this year’s Memorial Day, Lee Norman, MD, The University of Kansas Health System’s senior vice president and chief medical officer, considered attending formal ceremonies as a way to support our nation’s war servicemen and women. 

Instead, Dr. Norman, who is an Air Force veteran himself and lieutenant colonel in the Kansas Army National Guard, put on his full Army dress uniform and headed into the hospital. His goal: Meet with each of the 31 veterans who were inpatients that day and thank them for their sacrifices. 

Not all of them could talk – some were on ventilators or too heavily medicated. But most of them were more than happy to tell their stories. 

One patient, whom Dr. Norman described as a “hard-boiled career artillery man,” and his wife grew tearful during the conversation. Another was a woman who trained Air Force pilots in the famed Northrop T-38 supersonic jet. 

Then there was the young man "not ill a day in his life," Norman wrote later, who had survived desert combat but now wondered "if the chemical weapons cache he blew up in Iraq was responsible for his pancreatic cancer."

The Memorial Day visit, and his subsequent email to nurses thanking them for collecting names of the veterans in the hospital, were classic Lee Norman: Genuine, heartfelt, approachable. 

And when he leaves at the end of this month after more than 10 years as chief medical officer here, Dr. Norman will have helped spread those qualities to thousands of others at our health system and beyond, colleagues say. 

"A chief medical officer is a hard position, but Dr. Norman speaks the physicians’ language. He’s relatable to frontline physicians because he knows what speaks to them," says Liz Carlton, RN, senior director for quality, safety and regulatory compliance. 

"He’s also respected at all levels," Carlton adds. "It’s because he has a sense of humor and knows how to find levity in situations."

When Carlton and her fellow nurse leaders need to wordsmith a difficult email or approach a challenging situation, they even have an expression for the way to do it right: "Normanize it." 

Imbedding with troops 

He isn’t retiring, at least not yet. "I still have too much energy to back down," says Dr. Norman, who is 64. Rather than grabbing a fishing pole – or better yet, a martini – Dr. Norman is headed fully back into the military. 

He’ll spend at least 6 months as a command surgeon in combat zones in Kuwait, Iraq and Jordan, assigned first to the 35th Infantry Division and later to the Army III Corps in a colonel/brigadier general slot. In both roles he will command medical units, including a combat Army surgical hospital. 

The day he arrives for his Persian Gulf tour, he joked, the temperature is forecast to reach 116 degrees. (Or maybe it’s no joke.) He’ll apply for Medicare while deployed. 

Dr. Norman said the remarkable career change is a response to something burning inside him since his earliest military days, starting in the mid-1970s when he served in the Air Force as a family physician, flight surgeon and combat medicine instructor. 

In more recent years, his role in the military and homeland defense has blossomed again. Three years ago he was inducted into the Kansas Army National Guard, and in December 2015 he was named state surgeon of Kansas. 

And Friday, June 9, he received a leadership award from the Mid-America Regional Council. The award honored his role on the Regional Homeland Security Coordinating Committee, in which he helped champion regional planning for highly infectious diseases. 

Despite those significant accomplishments, Dr. Norman said, he’s eager to "contribute in a different way" and actually imbed with medics and troops in a warzone. After all, he’s been teaching medics, on and off, for more than 3 decades within the safety of U.S. hospitals. "Now it’s time for me to show up," he said. 

Connecting with people 

Dr. Norman has been a chief medical officer 26 years – 10 here and 16 at Seattle’s Swedish Health System, a 1,400-bed regional referral center. Starting in the late 1990s he also was the senior physician executive with Carondelet Health System, where he helped that organization complete a $100 million turnaround and eventual merger with Ascension Health. 

His role here has been unique in several ways, he said. He believes he helped shepherd the organization through "spectacular growth but in a cohesive way – thoughtful and strategic." 

He also strived to redefine the way our health system communicates with physicians. He wanted his emails to them to be succinct, meaningful and respectful of their time, helping ensure the busy providers at least would open and read his messages. "I did not want to become spam," he confesses. 

Brendy Frasco, our health system’s senior coordinator in physician relations, worked with him often in his interactions with physicians inside and outside our organization. 

'I remember one of the first times I had the opportunity to interact with Dr. Norman in a challenging situation," she says. "What I appreciated most was he is so down-to-earth. He engages and connects people within the hospital and outside in the community. He has a great way of simplifying hard-to-understand information."

There have been other endeavors. Dr. Norman made it a point to bring advanced nurse practitioners and physician assistants into the physician fold. He also has tried to coax more physicians who are early or in the middle of their careers, to develop leadership skills for management roles in the organization. 

And he has encouraged physicians to look beyond their immediate departments and see themselves as part of a broader collaboration, an atmosphere that helped pave the way for clinical integration. 

Think 2009, when the hospital emerged as one of the nation’s leading academic medical centers in the face of the H1N1 flu outbreak. Dr. Norman recalls the potential pandemic, and our organization’s high-profile, unified readiness for it, as a "lightbulb moment" for him and other physicians. 

"A focus on one thing"

Our health system has thrived for several reasons, he believes. One is the ongoing development of smart managers at mid- and upper levels. Also key is the medical partnership pairing physicians closely with nurse managers. 

And, of course, there is staff’s unwavering commitment to a set of uniform goals surrounding patient care. "It’s that focus on one thing," Dr. Norman says, "the culture of excellence, that is really most important and separates us from other organizations that flounder."

His own management style, he notes, reflects the "ethos" of our health system leadership to stay close to the frontline work – in this case, the bedside. It’s why he spends a chunk of time away from his desk, notching roughly 4 miles a day talking with patients, physicians and staff. On any given day he visits about half the hospital’s 40-plus nursing units. 

When he returns from deployment, Norman plans to continue in his Army role and as state surgeon for Kansas, at least part time. He’ll also remain on the faculty at the University of Kansas School of Medicine, continuing to mentor young physicians. 

While Norman’s deployment "is a loss for all of us, it is a huge win for our soldiers and Army medics overseas, who will benefit from his leadership, skill, compassion and care, just as we have for more than a decade," Bob Page, our health system’s president and CEO, wrote to leadership. 

Page adds, "His passion for our patients, his collegial relationships with physicians and staff, and his sense of humor will be greatly missed."

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