Hospitals & Facilities

Freeman Health System President and CEO Emeritus Gary Duncan talks crisis management

Duncan said he used his crisis management skills when a tornado hit Joplin, Missouri.
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Gary Duncan

· 3 min read

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This week’s Making Rounds spotlights Gary Duncan, president and CEO emeritus of Joplin, Missouri-based Freeman Health System. The not-for-profit health system has three hospitals and 460 beds, and serves an area that covers more than 450,000 patients across Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, and Oklahoma.

Duncan discussed some of the lessons he learned during his 15-year tenure as Freeman’s president and CEO—and his thoughts on why CEOs need to learn crisis management.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What were some of the things you accomplished during your time at Freeman Health System?

We started a heart program including open heart surgery that went from the ground floor to being the strongest heart program in the region. I think one of the most important things we did was put together the technical resources so that we could do deep dives into where there were opportunities or where there were problems. For example, someone says, “We have a lot of urinary tract infections in the hospital.” In the old days, it was kind of anecdotal. But now we can look and see, yes, in this area of the hospital, we have abnormally high urinary tract infections among patients. And more importantly, the solutions are all there online. You don’t have to think up how you’re going to treat the patient. I think that was one of the things I took a lot of pride in—that we were able to tackle those problems and improve the patient care.

What is the biggest misconception people might have about your job?

The biggest misconception was that I can just make things happen. And yes, I can—if I can coordinate all the players involved. My job was to focus on the mission. I was trying to think about what jobs does a CEO really do? I think you have to force communication. I think a CEO that doesn’t force communication doesn’t know what’s going on. Communication in a large organization with different locations doesn’t come easily. In fact, it’s very difficult.

That’s one of the things in the job, and then there’s crisis management. CEOs aren’t called on to crisis management very often, but when they are, it’s important you can do it. For example, in Joplin, we had an EF5 tornado that hit on a Sunday evening—161 people died. All of a sudden, I became the command station and I started saying, “You take care of FEMA, you take care of insurance, you take care of working with the city,” and on and on, and saying, “We’re gonna meet every morning, and we’re going to update where we are.” It wasn’t my hands or feet on the ground as much as making sure the problems were getting taken care of, and that’s part of the job.

What healthcare trends are you most optimistic about and why?

The one thing that really gives me hope is the number of new medical schools that are opening, because the doctor shortage is one of the scariest things I think that we can have over the next 30–40 years. There are new medical schools beginning to open in Joplin. We opened a new medical school a few years ago, and we opened a new dental school this July. And the federal government’s talking about opening up more residency slots, particularly in primary care. And I think that’s very encouraging. Rather than talking about the doom and gloom about the doctor shortage, something’s happening. I think that’s very pivotal for healthcare over the next next 40–50 years.

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