NEW HAVEN — When Dr, Keith Churchwell takes on his new role as president of Yale New Haven Hospital on Oct. 5, he will bring a vision that sees the hospital’s role as walking with patients throughout their medical journey.
Reaching out to low-income communities and people of color throughout Greater New Haven and beyond will continue to be a priority for the hospital, while it will stay in the forefront of advanced medical and surgical procedures, Churchwell said.
Churchwell has served as chief operating officer only since January, five years after coming to New Haven from his hometown of Nashville. After serving as executive director and chief medical officer of the Vanderbilt Heart and Vascular Institute, he took on the role of senior vice president, overseeing Yale New Haven’s heart and vascular and transplantation services.
Churchwell, the first Black president of the hospital, said he has the opportunity to communicate to other people of color that “we do nothing about you without you” when it comes to both experimental clinical trials and the hospital’s overall care.
Trust in the medical profession is lower among Black Americans than among whites and Latinos, according to surveys. A lack of outreach and communication has created a disconnect, Churchwell said. “We want to actually engage those that we want to help in a way that they not only understand, but they actually bring ideas as part of the solution in thinking through how we could do that better.”
In its clinical trials working with Pfizer to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, the Yale Center for Clinical Investigation has specifically sought people of color to take part, through ambassadors such as African-American pastors. Churchwell sees it as a model to reduce “the reluctance and the resistance” in the community.
“I think we can overcome that with a greater degree of dialogue, of transparency and also an engagement to actually say that we’re bringing solutions to this table,” he said. “We want you to be part of the solution. So give us your ideas in regards to how we can do a better job of conveying the information.”
Churchwell credits his medical team with helping to bring those ideas into practice.
“One of our cardiologists, Dr. Erica Spatz, who’s just fantastic, came with an idea of thinking about how we develop a better pathway of care and improve the care for patients with significant hypertension or resistant hypertension in the New Haven community,” he said.
Spatz has researched ways to enhance informed consent and shared decision-making in elective procedures.
Churchwell said, “we know that that patient population has been very difficult to treat in the past, with multiple admissions per patient to our emergency room with hypertension urgency … and, at times, crises where they have elevation of blood pressure with significant symptoms.”
The goal is to improve quality of life and reduce the number of times a patient will come to the Emergency Department.
“So we invested in an initiative that she started that brought together primary care physicians, our pharmacy, our clinical support, our nursing staff to think about a care model identifying these patients, actually having a pathway of care that engages them so that they would have access to resources and to individuals, sometimes at a moment’s notice.”
Hospital staff work with primary care doctors and others to improve diet and work on losing weight, among other lifestyle changes. Pharmacists are involved to try to minimize side effects from patients’ medications “so that they’ll take it and also will come back and actually will continue to be on what we think is the right path in terms of care,” he said.
He described such initiatives as “high touch, which actually utilize the (leading) technology of telehealth and tele-biometrical resources.” Ultimately, they may have an impact on care nationally, he said.
Another major project is the new primary care center at 150 Sargent Drive, a collaboration with Fair Haven Community Health Care and the Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center, which will consolidate primary care in one location. It is expected to open in October.
The plan is to “expand what the clinics have in terms of capability, bring synergy for those actually in the community doing this great work, and work towards a greater degree of continuity of care for the patient population that we serve within the New Haven area,” Churchwell said.
Churchwell, 58, is the youngest of five. His twin brother, Dr. Kevin Churchwell, is chief operating officer at Boston Children’s Hospital. An older brother, Dr. André Churchwell, a cardiologist who worked with him at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said he is “the newly minted vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion for Vanderbilt University as a whole.”
Both Keith and André Churchwell credit their parents with instilling the values that brought them their success in medicine. Their father, Robert Churchwell, was the first Black journalist for a Southern newspaper when he was hired by the Nashville Banner in 1950.
“Any success that we’ve had … came from their teachings and their instruction and the paths that they put us on lo those many years ago,” Keith Churchwell said.
“He had spectacular home training on values and the principles of emotional intelligence … reinforced by Mom and Dad,” André Churchwell said. “He’s developed really great leadership traits and business acumen. All those things seem to me to be steppingstones to where he is … The next job seemed to be a natural progression.”
Keith Churchwell’s rise to the top post at Yale New Haven Hospital was no surprise to his brother. “I kind of thought it might evolve that way, given his skills and his success there,” André Churchwell said.
The medical background extends to Keith Churchwell’s wife, Dr. Leslie Douglas-Churchwell, an assistant professor at the Yale School of Medicine and an internist with Yale Medicine. Their daughter, Lauren Churchwell, is beginning a master’s year at the University of Cambridge.
Keith Churchwell was appointed COO barely two months before the pandemic hit, and the months since have been a challenge for Yale New Haven Health, which has lost almost $500 million because of costs associated with treating patients and the loss of income from elective procedures. That was offset by about $320 million in federal CARE Act money.
The hospital has returned to much of its pre-pandemic operations. There were seven COVID patients in the hospital Friday, with one in intensive care.
“That’s down from a peak of over 440 patients on April 21,” Churchwell said. “That date is seared in my mind.”
It was like overseeing “really a full, moderately large hospital that was all COVID and COVID-positive patients in the setting of also taking care of another large hospital of patients who were not COVID positive.”
Now that the numbers are down, Churchwell is hopeful that area residents will continue to take the measures necessary to keep them from contracting the disease.
“The Labor Day holiday has passed and, so far, we haven’t seen a huge increase in the total number of patients coming to the ED … or being admitted,” he said. “And that’s good news for us. But we’re going to have to stay hypervigilant here until there is a vaccine available and that vaccine is widespread, and that we really start seeing a significant reduction within the population of the overall risk for patients who could contract COVID and become COVID positive.”
Being promoted from within senior management to succeed Richard D’Aquila, who retired, Churchwell has a strong sense of the hospital’s strengths.
“What I’ve found actually over the past few months, that there are even more fantastic individuals who are incredibly, highly competent at their work within our hospital,” he said. “I’ve had an opportunity to get involved with and get to know an even greater number of individuals on the clinical side, who are passionate about the work they do here and passionate about patient care.”
Despite the financial losses, Yale New Haven Hospital did not furlough any staff.
“We continued to support and keep everyone on the payroll,” Churchwell. “And with that we need to continue to work towards how do we get back to a baseline of strong and rigorous financial stability as we continue to support the overall mission and values for the health system?”
Among the challenges will be planning for future medical crises, which will involve rethinking plans for an $838 million Neuroscience Center and 200 new beds at the St. Raphael campus. The project was put on hold when COVID hit.
“As we’ve looked at this particular initiative … the Neuroscience Center itself has actually continued to be extremely important part of its overall development,” Churchwell said. “But we’re going to take an opportunity to rethink what the tower should look like and how it should operate in an environment where a pandemic may again occur and how we can utilize that particular resource to mitigate the issues for patients and for our personnel around a pandemic.”
Jennifer Jackson, CEO of the Connecticut Hospital Association, said in a statement, “Widely respected both nationally and in Connecticut as a clinician and administrator, Dr. Churchwell’s passion for continuing to evolve the way care is delivered to patients, while at the same time paying particular attention to the health of communities, including addressing the social determinants of health and health equity, is well known.”
“Keith has the perfect skills to advance Yale New Haven Hospital as a great teaching hospital and a critical resource to the greater New Haven communities,” said Marna Borgstrom, CEO of the Yale New Haven Health System. “He has distinguished himself as a strategic thinker, thoughtful colleague and collaborator. We are fortunate to have someone with his level of clinical and administrative excellence serve as the new president of YNHH.”
André Churchwell said his brother’s outside interests in the arts — he is president of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra — and his sense of humor “make him a three-dimensional person” and will serve him well in his new post.
“Those other interests will arm him with other creative ideas,” André Churchwell said.
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