In some ways, Femi Adewunmi, MD, MBA, CPE, SFHM, seemed destined to become a physician. He grew up in a medical family—his mother is an orthodontist; his father is an obstetrician/gynecologist. As a child, he often spent holidays visiting patients at the hospital where his dad worked. He grew to appreciate medicine as a noble profession, and when he reached his teens, he never seriously considered another career path.
“There were times when I was in medical school, dreading having to study for the numerous tests and exams, when I wished I had someone I could have blamed my decision to go to medical school on,” says Dr. Adewunmi, a native of Nigeria who has practiced as a hospitalist in the U.S. since 2003. “But no one pushed me to do it. It was something I always looked forward to doing, and I’m very glad I stuck with it.”
Dr. Adewunmi has only become more passionate about his work since then. His experience as a front-line hospitalist laid the foundation for a series of leadership roles, first directing the HM program at Johnston Memorial Hospital in Smithfield, N.C., and now as regional chief medical officer for Sound Physicians, which provides inpatient services to more than 70 hospitals nationally.
“I really want to be a good physician executive,” he says. “It’s definitely a case of ‘The more you learn, the more you realize how little you know.’ I still have a lot to learn, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
When did you decide to go into HM?
During residency, I realized I loved taking care of patients in the hospital, both along the wards and in the ICU. I enjoyed my outpatient clinics but found myself looking for any reason I could to stay in the hospital caring for patients. I was interested in patient safety and I was doing a little bit of utilization review, so I also felt it would give me a great overall perspective of the healthcare system.
What about leading the hospitalist program at Johnston Memorial appealed to you?
I enjoyed clinical medicine, and I still do, but I was looking to do more. I wanted to make an impact at a systems level, and I knew, to do that, I eventually had to gain some leadership experience.
What is the most valuable lesson you learned in that role?
Understanding that change doesn’t happen instantaneously. For instance, as a clinician, you sometimes admit patients with congestive heart failure. You diagnose correctly, treat appropriately, and in a few days, the patients do better and go home. You get pretty swift gratification. Administration is much different. You put processes in place and it could take weeks or several quarters before you start to see the effects of the changes you implement.
What appealed to you about moving from a single-site leadership position at Johnston to a regional position with Sound?
I wanted to continue evolving. I wanted more of a challenge and was seeking opportunities where I would have operational responsibility—overseeing performance improvement in quality, satisfaction, and financial performance for several programs. In addition, I wanted to be accountable for physician development, recruiting, negotiations, and the whole gamut of business development. It was the next logical step in my career.
Why did you pursue an MBA?
I’d made that decision just before I got into medical school. I recall first thinking about it after a conversation I had with my father as a teenager. When I told him that I had made up my mind to study medicine, he said, “You should consider getting an MBA as well. Your generation is going to need to have business experience and expertise, and be better in that area than our generation was.” It’s been invaluable for me in terms of preparing me for handling the business side of medicine, including ways to make operations more efficient and to reduce costs without compromising the quality of care provided.
You have worked in both hospital-employed and privately contracted HM programs. Do you prefer one model?
In general, the larger organizations tend to have an advantage in that they have established protocols and processes that work and have been refined over time. Couple that with the economies of scale they enjoy, as we move into an era of value-based purchasing, it’s becoming harder for the smaller community-based hospital to do that as well. That said, I have seen local hospital-run programs that function really well and have administrative support, so there is definitely enough room for both models.
You were in the inaugural FHM class. What did that recognition mean to you?
I saw it as validation of how we were starting to mature as a specialty and as recognition of a commitment to being a hospitalist, not just an internist. I never practiced outpatient medicine. I went straight from residency to hospitalist medicine. That’s how I identify myself, and I was happy to see that physicians specializing in hospital medicine were starting to get recognized.
What is your biggest professional reward?
The satisfaction from knowing you’re making a difference—not just by the care you provide one-on-one to your patients, but also knowing you’re contributing at a systems level or a population level because you’re making decisions and trying to redefine processes that actually could impact a much larger cohort.
What is your biggest professional challenge?
Trying to find enough hours in the day to do all that needs to be done.
What is next for you professionally?
I enjoy having varied opportunities and being involved in many different aspects of operations. That’s what attracted me to a larger company such as Sound Physicians, and I see myself staying in that type of role. Down the road, I’d love to be able to take some of my knowledge to Nigeria and find a way to help develop and shape the healthcare sector back home.
Why would that mean so much to you?
It would be a chance to give back. We still have people dying from largely preventable diseases, and our healthcare system is not what it should be. We don’t have enough physicians for the population, and most of the physicians are in urban areas.
Close to half of the members of my graduating medical school class are either in the U.S., Europe, Asia, or South Africa.
That type of brain drain has a tremendous effect over several decades. That’s a lot of talent outside the country, and we need that back home.
Mark Leiser is a freelance writer in New Jersey.