Dr. LouAnn Woodward

Leads Mississippi to better health

By Becky Gillette

Dr. LouAnn Woodward, 53, grew up on a farm in Carroll County south of Grenada. She and her brother Holland were raised in the same home where their father, Bruce Heath—the youngest of six children–grew up. Her paternal grandmother, known as Miss Onyx, lived with them. Her mother, Bobbie, also had a lot of family nearby.

“We were one, big extended family and we got together often,” Woodward says. “Cousins were always in and out. It was a lot of fun.”

Woodward has not moved far from Carroll County, distance-wise; it is only about a two-hour drive south to Jackson. But she has achieved far beyond the expectations for a girl growing up in the Delta.

In 2015, after a nationwide search, Woodward was named vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC), the first woman to be named the top administrative officer at UMMC. She oversees 10,000 employees, 3,000 students and the medical care for thousands of people.

One of the most prominent woman executives in Mississippi, Woodward oversees an annual operating budget of $1.7 billion.

“It is a heavy responsibility,” Woodward says. “There are nights that I wake up at 2:30 a.m. and don’t go back to sleep because my mind is churning. The thing for me that makes it doable, what is inspiring and fun, is the people we are working with. Our faculty members are amazing, dedicated teachers, and the students’ excitement about learning and their role in the future of medicine is invigorating. Then there are the patients who need us.”

There are challenges. Recently there were mid-year budget cuts. What keeps her going is a huge community of committed people pulling in the same direction.

“That is an inspiration,” Woodward says. “Anytime I am feeling like the challenges are so big, I get out and about into patient care areas. I see nurses, respiratory therapists and doctors giving all they have. Patients are so appreciative, and it is great interacting with students. That just fires me back up. That makes it not just doable, but something I feel extremely fortunate to be able to do.”

In February, funding for the fiscal year already in progress was cut $34 million.

“I gave every department head across the institution the authority to address this in the best way that worked for their department,” Woodward says. “There were people who lost jobs. It has been tough. What we are facing is a combination of cuts from the state and Medicaid. The important thing I have tried to stress across the organization is we can’t lose sight of our long-term vision. We must invest in these areas of important growth. You can’t manage your way out of it by cutting, cutting and cutting. Growing is what will get us to a better place in a year.”

Dr. James E. Keeton, Woodward’s immediate predecessor as vice chancellor, says what Woodward has done during this latest financial crisis is remarkable.

“She has done the right things and been very transparent about how she plans to make sure we get through this crisis,” Keeton said.

Woodward spends a lot of her time facing outward from the medical center working to gain legislative and public support.

“We are not just a hospital here in Jackson,” Woodward says. “We are a statewide resource. We are training students in all the health professions. We are focusing research efforts on those diseases that most impact Mississippians. And we are providing services not available elsewhere like organ transplants. My goal is that every Mississippian feels proud of what is going on at the medical center and thinks of this place as their medical center.”

Woodward is also influential on the national scene. She is a member and in July will be chair of the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, the body that accredits all medical schools in the U.S. and Canada. She is also a member of Council of Dean’s Administrative Board for the American Association of Medical Colleges, a national society for academic medical centers.

“That is another forum that gives me an opportunity to bring back to Mississippi some of the national conversation about what is going on,” Woodward says.

“It gives us an additional presence at the national level, but also brings us awareness about what is happening in the rest of the country.”

Woodward doesn’t know exactly when she became interested in medicine.

“I liked science,” she says. “I liked biology. When I was young, I remember people asking me what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to be a doctor, but I don’t know at what point in time I decided to become a doctor.”

In college, she considered becoming a teacher. She liked and respected her teachers.

What she didn’t realize until later was that the world of academic medicine was a place where teaching and medicine could be blended nicely.

“When I got here, I realized all types of physicians were teaching residents,” Woodward says. “The thing that hooked me in the beginning about the job was that it also involved teaching.”

Woodward has spent her entire career at UMMC. She started medical school in 1987, finished in 1991, did a residency in emergency medicine, stayed on as faculty and never left.

At UMMC, her roles encompass being dean of the medical school and vice chancellor for health affairs, which covers research programs, clinical programs and other education programs.

Woodward went to medical school when only about 20 percent of the students were female. Now that is about 50 percent. She never felt discriminated against.

“I had mentors who were men and mentors who were women,” she says. “Throughout my career, a variety of different individuals have been very supportive of the growth of my career. Being a woman has not been an obstacle. I think over time the field of medicine, because of the presence of more women and a more diverse workforce, is changing. There are flexibilities and options available today that weren’t available 30 years ago.”

Twenty years ago it was common for women to ask Woodward about the possibility of being a physician with a good work\family balance. Today, it is as common for her to also get that question from men.

“Today, both men and woman are very interested in finding the right balance in their lives,” she says.

Woodward is certainly a good role model for that. She has been married to Jon Woodward for 25 years, and the couple has four children: Juliana, 21, is a junior at Ole Miss. Twins Laura Leigh and Olivia, 19, are freshmen at Ole Miss. Jack, 17, is a junior of Germantown High School in Madison.

Woodward doesn’t pull punches about the difficulty of finding that right balance.

“You have to make very deliberate decisions,” she says. “People really do need to think through their options and the different paths they might take. Then when it comes to that balance, you have to be willing to set boundaries. In medicine, if you are not able to set personal boundaries, the need will consume you. What happens then is you run out of energy and you aren’t enjoying life. In Mississippi and the nation, the needs in the health care arena exceed our resources whether it is human capital or access to care. To have longevity, you have to understand your own personal boundaries.”

Helen I. Turner, a second-year medical student at UMMC from Jackson, worked with Woodward during the summer of 2016.

“One of the things that struck me is how steady she is,” Turner says. “Nothing seems to ruffle her feathers. I think that part of that is her training as an emergency room physician, and I’m sure that part of that is that if you can raise four children and work as an ER doc, then you can probably do anything. I was very intimidated by her before getting to know her, but she has a gift of being able to put people at ease.”

Turner admires that Woodward is a physician, a leader, a mother and a wife.

“She did not choose family or career,” Turner says. “She chose both and the grace with which she handles them, makes me feel like I can choose both, as well. She has paved the way for a lot of women, but men as well, to do great things for our state and our profession.”

One storm cloud on the horizon is the President’s budget proposal that would drastically cut medical research.

“To cut the National Institutes of Health (NIH) would be a mistake because this is the lifeblood that feeds science and discovery in health care across the country,” Woodward says.

“Anytime I get an opportunity, I promote us continuing to invest in the NIH. It is very important for the advancement of cures and treatment of diseases. Funding the NIH and funding research at federal level is important for all of us.”DBJ