Hospital chief executive officers might dream of receiving a sharp salute from their employees and having their orders carried out the moment they are spoken, but Lt. Col. Jessie Tucker III says running an Army hospital isn’t that easy.
Tucker, the recipient of the American College of Healthcare Executives 2007 Robert S. Hudgens Memorial Award for young healthcare executive of the year, is the first active-duty military officer to receive the award.
Tucker, 39, says his resume is dense with accomplishments at a young age mostly because of the nature of his U.S. Army career. “I’ve had a very uncustomary career in the Army,” Tucker says. “It’s difficult for us to get the level of assignment that is necessary for the award. But I have been a CEO pretty much my entire career. You have to be in the right place at the right time.”
Tucker grew up in a military family, but as a child suffering from seborrheic dermatitis, he always wanted to be a doctor. “I always wondered why they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with my skin,” he says. “As I got older, I realized that wasn’t really my calling.” Tucker majored in business, but later, he says, “I felt the call of the medical field again.”
Tucker says he joined the Army Reserve in 1985 while studying business at the University of South Carolina. The Army offered him an active-duty commission, and he requested healthcare administration. “It’s based on academic performance, previous military experience and what the Army needs at the time,” he said.
After serving as a medical platoon leader during the first Gulf War, the Army sent Tucker for several postgraduate degrees in healthcare administration. He earned his master’s in business administration from Troy (Ala.) University, a master’s in management from Bowie (Md.) State University, and a doctorate in healthcare administration from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. When he wasn’t in an academic program, he was heading clinics and hospitals all over the world, including Kaiserslautern, Germany, and the Fox Army Health Center, Redstone Arsenal, Ala., or teaching healthcare administration.
“We tend to move every two to three years,” he says. “I’ve worked out of tents, and I’ve worked out of buildings.” Tucker was the top administrator of a medical facility erected in the Saudi Arabian desert during the first Gulf War. The compound of tents accommodated about 40 beds, and provided emergency and outpatient services. He also commanded the Kleber Health Clinic in Germany.
Tucker credits this wide-ranging experience with giving him the ability to integrate good ideas from one site into other facilities, such as increasing productivity by adjusting staffing. He also sees what they all have in common. “Everywhere I go, I have a bit of a template or focus, and that’s to reduce costs and optimize or improve productivity,” he says.
Tucker has served as vice president of finance and operations at the Southeast Regional Dental Command, but since 2003, his assignments have been as commander or deputy commander, which are equivalent to CEO and chief operating officer, respectively.
He says the differences between Army hospitals and civilian hospitals are difficult to spot these days. Army hospitals are now focusing on bringing in revenue from third-party payers, such as the insurance a soldier’s spouse may carry from a civilian job. At Fox Army Health Center, where Tucker worked as deputy commander, about 75% of the staff were civilians. Tucker says he had to negotiate with unions to adjust scheduling.
“The few soldiers I did have, I could make them do things,” he says, “but I think it’s better to convince folks it’s for the good of the organization than to dictate to them.”
Military hospitals have unique challenges, too, especially during wartime. Tucker is a member of the Congressional Traumatic Brain Injury Task Force, a health policy study group that examines treatment of brain injuries for soldiers and examines how to provide the necessary rehabilitation services.
Tucker was just recently assigned to head the Army’s 129-bed Womack Army Medical Center in Fort Bragg, N.C., where he will have a position equivalent to president and COO.
He says one of the benefits of the Army is that he can retire young, which he plans to do within three years. The Army has provided him many career opportunities, but it hasn’t been an easy life for his family. Now that he and his wife have a 2-year-old daughter, Tucker is making plans to transition into the civilian sector.
University of Alabama at Birmingham Professor Bob Hernandez, who sat on Tucker’s doctoral committee, says, “Jessie is a very hard-working individual, and very committed to excellence in everything he does.”
Hernandez says Tucker started volunteering with him at the Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education as a fellow with the commission, which involved such thankless tasks as taking notes on meetings.
In July 2006, Tucker was appointed to a three-year term on the commission.
Hernandez says he has followed Tucker’s career and has been impressed by his abilities and his leadership. “He is not a physician, as you know,” Hernandez says. “It speaks to the recognition he’s received from the Army in terms of his leadership.”
Tucker credits great role models for his ability to succeed as a healthcare executive at such a young age. “I’ve been very fortunate to have exceptional professors and mentors that have given me those skills and talents and guidance,” he says.
Tucker says he is proud to be the first military commander to receive the award. He hopes to dispel some of the myths about Army hospitals.
“With all the rules in place, it’s not as totalitarian as most folks might think,” he says with a laugh. “You can’t even yell at a soldier anymore.”