Stuart Wesbury Jr. skated across pharmacy, hospital administration and academia before gliding for a dozen years as president of the American College of Healthcare Executives. When he describes his career as a "sheet of thin ice," Wesbury is quick to note he's not using the metaphor in the usual sense.
"I'm not trying to lay out any danger but just (to describe) that thin layer of being able to move across leadership roles in a whole set of different (industry) segments," he says. "I was fortunate to be able to slip from one environment to another, with an opportunity to run each one."
"He achieved some very distinctive things in each position," says Gordon Brown, director of health management and informatics at the University of Missouri. "He was a person of great vision, a person who did not accept the status quo but saw the potential."
Wesbury's tenure at the ACHE from 1979 to 1991 is best remembered by friends and colleagues for a significantly broadened membership, both demographically in terms of women and minorities, and professionally, with marked increases in both military and academic involvement. Overall, the college enjoyed more than 70% membership growth and its budget grew by four times under Wesbury's leadership.
Before he came, the college "was well-known to a cadre of people who were interested in hospital management," says James Drury, assistant director of the health industry management program at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. "He widened its perspective and got involved in things which made it more well-known to a bigger healthcare audience."
"He really put the ACHE on the map and moved it forward," says Richard Davidson, president of the American Hospital Association. "The beauty is, he started as a pharmacist and worked his way up through the system. He had a view from the inside. Right away he had a clinical interest, as opposed to just being a guy who studied management."
Wesbury, 71, traces his clinical interest to two factors: working at a corner drugstore as a youth in his native Philadelphia and helping to care for his father, a hemophiliac. "We were closely linked to doctors and hospitals," he says. "When I graduated from high school, there was no question where I was going."
After receiving a bachelor's degree in pharmacy from Temple University in 1955, Wesbury became a commissioned officer in the U.S. Health Service, where he got to know a pharmacist who had risen to become a hospital administrator. "That opened my eyes to that track," he says.
Wesbury earned a master's degree in health administration from the University of Michigan in 1960 and began about a decade of hospital administration roles, culminating as chief executive officer of Shand's Teaching Hospital and Clinic at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Wesbury also taught at the university as an assistant professor and later received a doctorate in economics and business administration in 1972.
"That was a tremendous opportunity," Wesbury says of becoming a hospital CEO at age 34. "It was a function of the times because the profession was still new and young, and opportunities could come a little sooner."
Upon receiving his doctorate, Wesbury moved to the University of Missouri at Columbia as an associate professor and director of the Health Services Management Program. In 1975, he received tenure and also became a district consultant for Missouri's Regional Medical Program, where he met administrators and doctors from across the state.
"It got me involved in long-term care as well as acute care and healthcare planning," Wesbury says. "I became extremely aware of the value of networks, getting to know people and learning to work with people." Wesbury believes his breadth of experience was central to his success both in attaining the leadership of the ACHE and in gaining the wide respect necessary to advocate a sometimes controversial agenda.
"I had ... run a university hospital, but I had also chaired a university graduate program. I had been on both sides of the fence," he says. "That was a period of great transition in health administration: Women were coming into the field in greater numbers, there was the integration of more minorities, and a major piece was working with the military to incorporate health administrative officers."
To promote women and minorities, Wesbury boosted their leadership roles, encouraged research and sought linkages with minority professional groups. His efforts led to the ACHE's Institute for Diversity, which carries on his legacy of opening doors.
The ACHE "was primarily a guys club," Drury says. "Not everybody was initially that enthusiastic. But I think through persistence, by putting people on committees and in leadership roles, it got (women and minorities) integrated into the leadership."
Mark Neaman, president and CEO of Evanston (Ill.) Northwestern Healthcare and immediate past chairman of the ACHE, says the addition of several thousand military officers has provided benefits back and forth.
"It exposes the military to contemporary healthcare delivery systems, issues and solutions," says Neaman, who knows Wesbury through their joint work on regional blood banking in Chicago. "And for the civilian sector, there are some exciting things that come out of the military, both clinically in terms of emergency response as well as even things like their electronic medical-records systems. So it's a good cross-fertilization."
Wesbury also integrated academics by creating a special category of membership for faculty members and student ACHE chapters, which now number more than 100.
Changing names, direction
To more accurately reflect a wider focus, Wesbury stirred up perhaps his largest controversy by advocating a change in the organization's name, which had been the American College of Hospital Administrators since its founding in 1933. "It speaks to the transition of the organization and the field in general from hospital-specific to a broad array of executive roles in many different environments," Wesbury says.
Drury recalls Wesbury's first attempt to pass the change through the Council of Regents failed, but he returned the next year and won. "If he feels something really needs to be done, he's determined," Drury says. "And now, (the debate) is ancient history."
Wesbury also worked to involve the organization more closely in public policy, taking positions on issues and testifying a few times before congressional committees. "That was somewhat controversial, primarily because it was expected that the American Hospital Association would be the political arm," he says. "That policy voice had some land mines but is pretty well-established today."
And the AHA is comfortable with it, Davidson says. "ACHE is not necessarily an advocacy organization, but there is no reason in this world they shouldn't be talking about health policy questions," he says.
Professionalism was another focus of Wesbury's tenure: The college strengthened its code of ethics to emphasize improving public health, not just the financial health of organizations, and members were urged to become fellows, achieved through doing research and boosting their community involvement.
"To me, a key (Wesbury legacy) was leadership for the profession emphasizing that healthcare is, indeed, a profession, not just a job or a career," Drury says. "And that, as a professional organization, we needed to aspire to things like a code of ethics."
Wesbury left the college in 1991 for a professional and personal adventure that became one of his few disappointments. A longtime Republican committeeman in suburban DuPage County, Ill., he developed a "feeling in my belly" that he wanted to run for Congress, and did so-in the Republican primary, against the incumbent, Rep. Harris Fawell. Wesbury lost.
"Healthcare seemed to be an issue, and economics seemed to be an issue," he says. But not, as it turned out, for the mostly employed, insured residents of his district. "What I would have considered one of my strongest suits turned out to be unimportant."
Serving the community
After his defeat, Wesbury worked in healthcare consulting for two years and then joined the faculty of the Arizona State University School of Health Administration and Policy, Phoenix, from which he retired last September.
"If you really live in an academic community and enjoy students, that's a major attraction," he says. "The most important thing to me is getting connected with students and then watching their careers. That's the greatest thrill."
Among Wesbury's most satisfying community activities-and a continuing link to the roots of his interest in healthcare-has been his work for blood-related organizations; he served as chairman of both the America Red Cross' Mid-America Chapter and Blood Systems, the nation's second-largest provider.
Neaman recalls Wesbury in the mid-1980s insisting on a merger between the local American Red Cross chapter and the Blood Center of Northern Illinois, where Neaman was board chairman, into a new organization called LifeSource Blood Services. "He was really persistent that this merger was the right thing because it would benefit the citizenry of the greater Chicago area," Neaman says. "Those are the kinds of people you really want in situations like that, who have convictions."
Wesbury credits his wife and four sons for supporting his career through their willingness to move to "a dozen homes in a dozen different communities," he says. "They were as much a part of this process as anyone. They moved, they moved, they moved, to allow me to do the things that challenged me."
Ed Finkel is a freelance writer based in Evanston, Ill. He can be reached at [email protected]