Leading with purpose and compassion: Meet Dr. Kevin U. Stephens, Sr.

Dr. Kevin U. Stephens is a man of many talents. With a background in private practice, public health and law, Dr. Stephens is passionate about shaping and improving the nation’s health care delivery system.

As chief medical officer for UnitedHealthcare of the MidSouth, where, in his words, he helps UnitedHealthcare “provide the right care at the right time at the right place to the right people,” Dr. Stephens leads clinical efforts for Employer and Individual plans in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee.

A board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist, Dr. Stephens was in private practice in New Orleans for more than 14 years. It was a time he remembers fondly given his love for babies and the joy he found bringing them into the world.

Dr. Stephens’ career has also included earning a law degree from Loyola Law School, providing care for the underserved in Zimbabwe, Africa, and putting his skills as an ordained minister to good use through public speaking. But perhaps one of the most defining moments in his career was the time he spent as Health Director for New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina – one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in U.S. history.

Dr. Stephens recently answered questions about his experiences and unique perspectives on health care.

What’s the best part of your job?

Whenever I can work with our staff concerning our customers with the goal of assisting them in managing and improving their health outcomes and quality of life is the most exciting work we embark upon. This could be a provider, an employer or an actual patient. It’s always my goal to help them work through their issues to resolve them in a timely fashion. Customer satisfaction is a primary goal in our company and also for me.  

What lessons did you learn from leading public health in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina?

The most important observation was the severe poor health status of members in our community. The nexus between the social determinants of health (SDOH) and health status was apparent.  We basically had our whole health care delivery system wiped out and had to rebuild it from scratch – from the ground up. That made it clear how important it is to address SDOH and health status before a disaster. Reinforcing the necessity for wellness exams and primary health care.

One unanticipated variable that was not adequately considered was the impact of a disaster on staff members. It was assumed that staff members were resilient and even resistant with the capacity to provide medical care. However, the vulnerability of staff in a disaster was realized when two staff members committed suicide. It was so traumatic and something we just weren’t prepared to face.

In the midst of dealing with the city’s public health, I had to learn to pull back, stop and work with my staff on their mental and physical health status and well-being. We had to address the social determinants of health with staff members. The importance and impact of the SDOH was reinforced.

We had psychiatrists or counselors in every meeting to provide support. Our leaders were encouraged to open up and shared their feelings. Through this, we learned another big lesson – learn how to identify and express your vulnerabilities, this can lead to growth in the organization individually and collectively. It is helpful and healing for staff to see leadership as real people being open, honest and direct. That’s one way to gain trust and respect with the citizens in the city and staff members. One principle in servant leadership is to have the welfare and well-being of others at the top of your mind.

We saw a tremendous surge in deaths as reported by the residents and in the local newspaper and pondered whether there was a corresponding rise in the mortality rates. Unfortunately, our state’s Office of Public Health was backed up. In order to get an idea concerning our mortality rates, we did a study first to show that deaths as reported in the local newspaper was fairly accurate in identifying the number of deaths. The numbers correlated with the deaths as reported by the Office of Public Health. Finally, it was a crude way to get an idea to determine death rate trends. We found that the death notices in the local newspaper indicated that we had a big bump in mortality. This was confirmed later on by the Office of Public Health. An article was published in the American Medical Association Journal detailing the findings, which helped us put interventions in place to help people get access to primary care.

Do you have any words of wisdom for the next generation to make the health system better?

As I reflect back upon the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s clear we absolutely need to restore trust in the health care delivery system. There is still some degree of disinformation and misinformation out there. We all need to work to restore confidence and trust in our health care system. Now is the time to work on restoring trust because when there is a crisis or disaster, it’s too late. Commitment, compassion and candid communication are key components to rebuilding confidence in our health care delivery system.

Where is the most interesting place you’ve been?

Professionally, the most interesting place I’ve been was Zimbabwe. In the early 2000s, I was working there to decrease the maternal to fetal transmission of HIV/AIDS. There was a 25% vertical transmission rate of the virus from breastfeeding mothers to their babies. We were working to reduce that rate by treating the mothers. The people were so kind and the food was just great. By the way, Victoria Falls was the most beautiful place.

What is something most people don’t know about you?

Most people don’t know I am a concert pianist and classical organist. A couple of months ago, I did a solo recital. On the organ I played the Toccata and Fugue in D minor by Bach. On the piano, I played some Chopin nocturnes and a couple of sonatas, including Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven.

In addition to his private practice and work with the city of New Orleans, Dr. Stephens also has served as the women’s health medical director for the Office of Public Health in the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. He is a native of Gonzales, Louisiana, and holds a B.S. in Physics from Southern University, M.D. from Louisiana State University and a J.D. from Loyola Law School.

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