BY TOM BAILEY
Years have passed, but Dr. Arthur M. Townsend IV still remembers the fear in her eyes.
Then an obstetrics/gynecology (OB/GYN) hospitalist at The Women's & Children's Pavilion at Methodist Le Bonheur Germantown Hospital, Townsend entered the draped delivery room about 2 a.m. to find a distressed woman in labor as a medical team hustled to prepare for her Cesarean section.
Her anxiety in those hectic moments was understandable. The required surgical delivery could not wait for the arrival of her own doctor; the baby needed to be delivered immediately.
“I saw her eyes, and the fear,” Townsend recalled.
That’s when he remembered what he had previously learned from staff employees in his own OB/GYN practice: Slow down, take a moment with the patient, make eye contact, and establish trust with this person who does not know you.
“I took her hand, and I said, ‘We’re going to do everything we can to make sure everything is okay for you and your baby,’” Townsend told the woman.
Almost immediately, her eyes relaxed. “Her face released that fear,” he said.
That approach to practicing medicine — listening to and learning from employees, colleagues and especially patients — now infuses Townsend’s leadership for three different organizations.
The St. Louis native now wears three professional hats. He is:
— Director of the same OB/GYN hospitalist program, at Methodist Le Bonheur Germantown Hospital, where he had served as a hospitalist;
— Vice president and chief clinical transformation officer for Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare. His primary role is promoting evidence-based medicine and creating hospital protocols and policies to minimize any inconsistencies in the quality of patient care;
— President and chief executive officer of HealthChoice, a venture equally owned by Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare and MetroCare Physicians. HealthChoice is not a medical practice but provides three types of services. Its nurses and medical assistants do patient out-reaches to help them avoid early returns to emergency departments or a hospital room. The health team helps patients gain timely access to doctors, medicines and important healthcare information. HealthChoice also helps doctors solve any issues with insurance claims. And it provides access to more affordable health insurance for employees of physician offices. HealthChoice pools the staffs together to acquire more affordable insurance rates.
Townsend completed his residency program in 1994 and came to Memphis to join his father’s OB/GYN practice.
“I have come from a line of physicians going back to my great-grandfather, Arthur Townsend Sr. There’s always been a kind of commitment to medicine and caring for people has always been something that has been valued in my family,” Townsend said.
He ran a successful private practice in OB/GYN medicine for 17 years, until 2015.
During those years of leading a private practice, Townsend fostered a team approach among his staff members — from receptionists to nurses to himself.
“Everybody had a stake in the health of patients; everyone had an equal voice,” he said.
For example, all his staff participated in strategic planning meetings. “I encourage a free flow of ideas, doesn’t matter what your role is in the office. Everybody sees things differently; it’s all important to fulfill our mission,” he said.
Townsend took to heart a staff suggestion during one of those meetings. He was advised to slow down and be more present with his patients.
“They told me, ‘Doc, you need to go in the room, don’t stand up, sit down.
And make eye-contact. And not only listen, but make sure the patient knows you’ve absorbed what she told you.’”
The amount and quality of time you will spend with the patient will mean a lot more to your relationship with her as a doctor and patient, Townsend said.
The approach requires active listening. “But also, at times it’s incredibly important to be quiet. Let her say whatever is on her mind, and a few moments of silence in the room is not a bad thing,” he said. “The silence helps ensure the patient had an opportunity to share everything she wanted to share.
“It’s not just about diagnosing or performing surgeries or prescribing medications or delivering babies. But it’s also about listening and making sure she knows that I see and hear her,” Townsend said.
Dr. Townsend’s variety of professional experiences helps him bridge the gap between healthcare administration and the physicians, nurses and other providers working in the trenches of healthcare.
After all, he has worked as an OB/GYN hospitalist, been in private practice for 21 years, including leading it for 17 years, helped establish one of Tennessee’s first OB/GYN hospitalist programs, led the HealthChoice medical management organization since September 2020, and has overseen the Methodist Le Bonheur systemwide quality-standards program.
“I had the fortune of being a practicing physician and then a leader within the medical staff, and then a leader on the corporate level,” he said. “As a practicing physician, it gave me the opportunity to develop relationships with physicians and nurses throughout the hospital system. And getting to know the leadership of the Methodist healthcare system was priceless,” he said.
Michael O. Ugwueke, the president and chief executive of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, established a physician leadership program and named Townsend as its director. The program helps physicians learn the business of medicine “to make them effective partners with Methodist hospital administration as well as effective leaders for other healthcare providers,” Townsend said.
Some doctors who have gone through the leadership program have assumed such roles as chief of staff and chief medical officer for their hospitals.
In leading other physicians, Townsend says he has learned that doctors want to participate in the quality of care that their patients receive.
Hospital administrators also attend the physician leadership academy, forming closer relationships with the doctors. “So, when there would be opportunities to make process improvements, there would be an existing relationship between administrators and the doctors so they could work together to solve problems,” Townsend said.
Townsend sees his roles at Methodist Le Bonheur and HealthChoice as complementary. In both arenas — Methodist Le Bonheur’s in-patient operations and HealthChoice’s out-patient/primary care segment — he promotes best practices.
“One influences the other,” he said. “The healthier people are in the out-patient, primary care segment, the less likely they’ll have to go to the hospital.”
HealthChoice has entered into value-based agreements with Medicare, UnitedHealthcare and Cigna Healthcare insurance companies. Medical practices in the HealthChoice network participate in the value-based agreements, taking the steps to help patients avoid returning to emergency rooms or a hospital room.
“We also would like to expand the services HealthChoice provides to improve the health of Shelby County residents and beyond,” he said.
Meanwhile, for Methodist Le Bonheur HealthCare, Townsend is working on an initiative with the system’s chief medical officer, Dr. Wayne Lipson, to improve patient flow. That means moving patients in a more efficient and timely way, whether through the Emergency Department or getting discharged from a hospital room.
One hat that Townsend has no time to wear is a golf cap.
With whatever free time he mustesr, Townsend enjoys movies, traveling and attending concerts with his wife, Deborah.
“I wish I had time to play golf,” he said with a laugh. “Maybe there’s time for that later. It’s a dream.”