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Dr. Richard Embrey, Cardiothoracic surgeon and Chief Medical Officer at Princeton Baptist Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama

I write quite a bit about the doctors I met during my travels – and the innovative things they are doing – but it’s not often that I take the opportunity to talk about someone who I have so much esteem and respect for, my previous surgeon (and friend), Dr. Richard P. Embrey.

But first a little background:

Before there was a ‘Cartagena Surgery’ – there was just Kristin Eckland, a cardiothoracic nurse practitioner working at a small Duke-affiliated surgery practice in the charming Virginia town of Danville.  While it was town rich in history (Robert E. Lee’s last home is on my street) and southern traditions – it had also fallen on hard times after several large industries shuttered their doors and left the city adrift.

In the midst of all of this  – there was Dr. Richard P. Embrey, performing surgery every day and trying to make the world a better place.  As we watched our local hospital continue to struggle for a variety of reasons (sometimes all of those down home traditions get in the way of good business decisions), we worked together, shoulder to shoulder to do our best to provide world-class care.  We used to joke that it was our own brand of boutique care – and people in the community seemed to recognize and appreciate that our care and commitment went beyond the minimum standard. Many people who could have chosen to go elsewhere for their care – to the main Duke hospital down the road, to Centra, to the big institutions in Roanoke, Richmond or Greensboro made conscious choices to stay and be treated close to home, because they trusted us.  We had taken care of their mothers, brothers, sisters and aunts – and they respected us, and loved us for it – so when they needed surgery themselves – they always came back.  Sometimes they came back for other things; just to talk/ visit or to share their news with us or a referral to a orthopedist, a dentist or primary care provider …

For the people without that choice – the uninsured and the disenfranchised – well, we were always there for them too.  That’s the beauty of being affiliated with a behemoth like Duke – is that you get to take care of all the other people we hear about in the news every day, the ones that ‘fall through the cracks’ of the health care systems.  Too young for Medicare, ten dollars too much income for Medicaid, and other similar tragedies.

We were very proud of our practice, but it never stopped us from having a critical eye, as we looked to see how we could further improve and better serve our patients.  Often when we rounded in the hospital we would see things we thought should be better.  “There must be a better way,” we would muse.  Except Dr. Embrey never mused – He never said, “someone should fix that” or “something should be done to make this process better.”  Whether it was streamlining the patient admission process to make it faster & easier on patients coming to the hospital for surgery, developing protocols to prevent complications, or encouraging forays into new technologies and medical advances – Dr. Embrey would ALWAYS say, “I know we can improve this, and here’s how.”  Then he would spearhead the committee (hospitals require committees for everything), research the data, and come up with a comprehensive plan to address whatever he had first identified..  Unfortunately, while this was usually a pretty speedy process when it involved just our patients – hospital-wide changes usually took a LOT longer.  Some dinosaur of a physician would complain for the sake of complaining, “this has worked since I started in 1972,” forgetting of course, that he himself had probably complained about it since then – before giving up and resigning himself to it.

But Dr. Embrey resigned himself to accepting nothing less than excellence, so he would continue to persevere – and get things done.  He was always, always reading a book, an article, a review on how to improve, how to implement and plenty of other ‘heady’ topics.  “Dr. Embrey,” I asked one day, “don’t you ever read normal books?  You know, novels and stuff.”  He just laughed and started telling me the great organization leadership and change book he was reading…

Ultimately, despite have a wonderful collegial relationship with Dr. Embrey (probably the best in my career), I ended up leaving the practice – there were too many ups – and downs with Duke.. Would the program close, or would it stay open?  Not something I wanted to have to ponder as I laid awake in my little bed, in my house on Main Street, (yes, really – I did live on main street.. It’s that kind of picket fence town.)

But even after I left – I always looked back, to see how he was doing.  When he told me about becoming a hospital administrator – I was torn – I love surgery, he is an absolutely excellent surgeon and I hated to see him leave the field..  But on the other hand – I knew that if there was one doctor in a million who could successful bridge that gap between medicine and business without leaving the patient’s needs behind – it would be Dr. Embrey.

So I have watched with so much pride at the accomplishments he’s made in just the few short years since.  I watched as his hospital, Princeton Baptist became a dedicated ‘Chest Pain Center’. Then a certified Heart Failure center.. and then, several months ago.. I saw just a quick blurb in an on-line medical journal about this hospital in Alabama and their new protocols for reducing infection.. and I knew.. The article may have downplayed the facility (it was a northern based journal, and southern animosity runs deep) but I knew this was big, big news – and that it was about Princeton Baptist.  It was just a short paragraph – but the article was eye-opening.. (I wish I could find it to post to it – confirming that the biggest discoveries are sometimes just a blip in the radar..)

Now – the news is finally filtering out. This week 27 other hospitals join Princeton Baptist in the hand washing – infection reduction program.  Now Dr. Embrey and his efforts are receiving some of the accolades  (including a 2012 VHA leadership award)and attention (that he has always deserved, in my opinion.)

Using technology to reduce infections

There are so many other wonderful things I could say about Rich – he was endlessly supportive and patient, and encouraging of all my endeavors – but instead I’ll just say, “Outstanding, Dr. Embrey!  Keep up the amazing work!”

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