February 8, 2016
Executive Profile

Agwunobi pairs smart business with better health

HBJ PHOTO | John Stearns
HBJ PHOTO | John Stearns
Andrew Agwunobi is focused and serious, but also low key and approachable. He loves people, is a pediatrician and comes from a healthcare family.

Andrew Agwunobi

CEO at UConn Health and executive vice president for health affairs

Highest education: Medical doctor, University of Jos, Nigeria, 1995.

Executive insights:

"My core belief is that leadership is a privilege not a right."

"Empower the physicians. … The actual solution to a lot of our problems in health care is to have physicians be co-leaders, so instead of them just giving input or giving advice, they're at the table leading the change."

CEO at UConn Health and executive vice president for health affairs


Business and medicine run in Andrew Agwunobi's family.

The CEO at UConn Health and executive vice president for health affairs is a medical doctor and MBA. His Nigerian father was a surgeon in Britain. His grandfather was a physician. His Scottish mother was a nurse. His wife is a hospitalist and brother a physician.

Working as a pediatrician at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates in Boston and running its pediatric urgent-care center, Agwunobi wanted to explore the business of medicine further. He got his MBA at Stanford and set sail.

Transition from pediatrician to CEO

The transition from pediatrician to CEO was natural. His physician father also had pharmaceutical export-import, house-renovation, and trucking businesses.

"So when I grew up, I didn't see business and medicine as separate," said Agwunobi, 50, who was permanently appointed UConn CEO Dec. 31, but was interim CEO since November 2014. "I always loved the business side as much as I loved the medicine side."

Born in Scotland, where he lived until age 12, he grew up poor in a remote village as his parents worked to put his dad through medical school.

Today he's running a $1-billion enterprise in UConn Health, overseeing operations on its Farmington campus, which also includes John Dempsey Hospital, 10 UConn Health clinics, and medical and dental schools. The enterprise employs 5,529 faculty and staff.

Agwunobi has been steering UConn Health since fall 2014, but he arrived a year earlier from Spokane, Wash., as a healthcare consultant with Berkeley Research Group to help UConn improve operations and finances, which included losses that approached $30 million. He also served as chief transformation officer.

Improving finances

UConn Health leaders were receptive to change and finances have improved. John Dempsey Hospital narrowed its operating loss in fiscal 2015 to $6.8 million, compared to a $17.8 million loss a year earlier.

"We still are losing money and we still have to have a long-term plan for that, but at least we're not facing the type of huge losses that we were at that time," he said.

With quality care, good service and new facilities, UConn has the ingredients to be strong going into the future, but not by itself, Agwunobi said.

"I think that we have to reach out to entities around us, deepen our collaboration with them, seek affiliations that are beneficial to the communities around us, and be creative and open to change, he said.

He seeks to join one of the region's accountable care organizations and form other affiliations, too.

Agwunobi had to be creative as CEO of Grady Health System in Atlanta, where he worked before Spokane. The system included a children's hospital losing substantial money. Leaders crafted a new vision that any child admitted in Atlanta should get the same standard of care as a top 10 children's hospital. He approached Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, which operated two competing top 10 children's hospitals, to have it operate Grady's children's hospital with the other two. One system operated three hospitals with a single vision.

The vision was widely supported, philanthropic dollars poured in and success followed, Agwunobi said.

Healthy look at collaboration

Rather than viewing Grady's problem as competition from the other hospitals, "the healthy way to look at the problem was, 'Let's step back from that and figure out how we can collaborate to make one plus one equal to three,' " he said.

CEO or COO in four previous health systems, Agwunobi is used to running complex health organizations in challenging environments, but said he's always learning.

He believes leaders need to drive an organization's culture; think like owners; and not need credit, but view organizational success as individual success. He's big on communication and is launching a "Dear Dr. Andy" inbox for staff to contact him. He's creating physician-empowerment teams for doctors' input on business decisions.

Agwunobi enjoys reading classic books, archaeology and writing.

He's looking forward to his wife, Elizabeth, and youngest daughter, Hannah, 11, moving from Spokane. His oldest daughter, Rebekah, 13, is nearby, newly enrolled in Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford.

He and Elizabeth met during his residency at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

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