Featured Exec: Shelbourn Stevens, President and COO at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center.

March 2, 2020

A look at Shelbourn Stevens, president and COO at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center and his career in healthcare.

A career as a respiratory therapist appealed to Shelbourn Stevens, RRT, RCP. Helping patients who had trouble breathing due to conditions such as asthma and emphysema allowed him to work with patients of all ages. It also satisfied his need to serve in healthcare. Stevens realized that need when he helped his grandmother care for his grandfather, who was bedridden.

According to Stevens, he didn’t aspire to a leadership role when he started as a respiratory care assistant in 1990 at Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., which became part of Novant Health in 1997. He moved into a role as a respiratory therapist in 1992.

Stevens’ colleagues rallied behind him when he wanted the hospital to allow respiratory therapists to fully use their training. At the time, respiratory therapists were allowed by the state to do intubations and insert interior lines, but these procedures were done by physicians at Forsyth Medical Center who initially didn’t want respiratory therapists do this work. Undaunted, he pressed on and, ultimately, physicians supported the change.

Related: Featured Exec: Warner Thomas, President and CEO at Ochsner Health System

This kicked off a theme in Stevens’ career at Novant Health, where he was subsequently asked to head up the cardiopulmonary services department. In that role, he was responsible for budget, personnel, continuous improvement, and the development and implementation of new services within the pulmonary service line. Stevens also led a group across Novant Health that drove significant cost reductions for the health system.

Then, very unexpectedly, he says, an opportunity to serve as director of professional ancillary services, where he oversaw financial planning and strategic growth initiatives, brought him to Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center in 2006. Since 2012, he’s served as president and COO at the 74-bed medical center in Bolivia, N.C.

“Jumping in” to solve problems

Stevens, who earned an MBA in 2001, says he’s good at solving intractable problems and is a good “people person.” But he insists it’s his clinical background that makes him a good healthcare leader.

“I tend to always want to jump in there to understand what’s happening at the bedside. I want to spend time out with the teams, like nurses and lab techs, making observations and asking questions. I want to know how we can improve what we do,” he says.

Jumping in was part of his leadership strategy when the hospital faced Hurricane Florence in September 2018. Some North Carolina cities such as Bolivia endured 23 inches of rain, while a nearby town witnessed 27 inches. Ultimately, Bolivia and the surrounding area experienced seven days of flooding, impassable roads, and power outages.

Sleeping on an air mattress in his office for six nights during the hurricane and its aftermath, during the day, Stevens coordinated communications and logistics related to the storm. He also delivered food trays and transported patients.

“We would round during day and night shifts to raise team members’ spirits and recognize the hard work being done,” he says.

While it was a challenging time, finding time to laugh-sometimes, at himself-helped boost morale, says Stevens.

“That’s one of my cardinal rules in healthcare: We have to have fun,” he adds. 

Stevens took additional initiative before, during, and after the hurricane by staffing team members to help prior to the storm, purchasing a washing machine and dryer for members because they did not have enough clothes to wear during the duration of the storm, and providing food and shelter to residents and families at two available hospital waiting rooms until roads were safe enough to travel on. 

Another new initiative since Hurricane Florence is the practice of deploying a nurse to serve patients at a local shelter serving community members with special needs. The nurse, who is embedded with Red Cross volunteers at the shelter, treats patients instead of sending them to the hospital’s emergency department, says Stevens.

Keeping an open-door policy

The community also hosts an annual baby shower where hundreds of people in need receive donated diapers, blankets, and car seats.

This community program was created five years ago by a nursing assistant in Stevens' unit, which he supported. It initially began as a hopital-driven program, but has since expanded with the community's support.  

In May 2019, at the fifth annual community baby shower, more than 400 community members in need participated. Among the donations were a dozen infant car seats, which cost approximately $80 each, he says.

“It’s just really grown into a big community event to help those who don’t have everything that they need,” says Stevens. “[The idea] came from a team member working at the bedside, (who was) very passionate about it, and she was comfortable knocking on my door saying ‘I have an idea, will you hear me out?’”

Stevens takes a similar open-dialogue approach in trying to address the twin-challenges of mental health issues and opioid use disorder in North Carolina's Brunswick County, which has a population of 131,000. Informed by conversations with the local sheriff’s office, Stevens and his team learn about the number of psychiatrists, psychologists, and licensed social workers the hospital needs to hire to address these crises. In 2018, there were 26 unintentional opioid overdose deaths and 33 opioid overdose emergency department visits in the county.

“For years, a family where there’s a mental health or addiction issue, they tried to hide it. We’re trying to talk about these concerns,” he says.

It helps that the hospital’s team members are talking about their experiences, which then makes it easier for community members to share their stories, adds Stevens.

According to Brunswick County statistics, more than 7,470,000 opioid pills were dispensed in the county in 2018. Naloxone seems to be a part of the solution to the overdose problem. There were 59 reported community naloxone reversals of opioid overdose in the county that year.