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It’s One and Done for Memorial Hermann CEO Chu

By Philip Betbeze  
   June 19, 2017

Chief Operating Officer Charles (Chuck) Stokes will take over as interim CEO effective immediately as health system’s first physician CEO leaves after one year to "pursue his passion in health and public policy."

By Philip Betbeze

Memorial Hermann President and CEO Benjamin Chu, MD, is out after a year on the job.

Whether or not the decision was entirely his, as the health system’s press release on the matter suggests, no governing board goes through the laborious process of finding, vetting and paying a new top leader, not to mention the upheaval among clinicians and employees such a transition entails, only to have to repeat the process a year later. Especially when the previous CEO, Dan Wolterman, is a legend in healthcare administration who served 17 years in the role.

But, it happens.

Chu was replaced immediately, on an interim basis, with executive vice president and chief operating officer Charles (Chuck) D. Stokes, who is also a registered nurse. Stokes has been with Memorial Hermann since 2008, and is the current board chair of the American College of Healthcare Executives.

Though the release gave no specific future destination for Chu, it did note that he plans to pursue his passion in health and public policy. He has served as board chair for the Commonwealth Fund and as a member of the Advisory Committee to the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and served in 2014 as the chair of the American Hospital Association Board of Trustees.

Chu, the first physician to become CEO of the 14-hospital Memorial Hermann, was hired away from Kaiser Permanente, where he served as the executive vice president of Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and Health Plan Inc., and Group President of Kaiser Permanente Southern California and Georgia regions.  

Upon naming him as Wolterman’s successor in March 2016, Will Williams, who chaired the Memorial Hermann board at the time, said that after a comprehensive search that included internal candidates, “the decision to appoint Ben as the new president and CEO came down to his exceptional experience. That, along with his remarkable career, passion for people and commitment towards patient-centered care, is what makes Ben the right leader at the right time.”

Just a year later, the separation, at least publicly, was amicable.

"I have admired Memorial Hermann from afar for many years, and I was incredibly honored to join this prestigious organization," said Chu in the release announcing his departure. "It has been a privilege to have led one of the nation’s largest and most successful health systems—one that advocates for improved access to safe, high-quality care."

Current Board Chair Deborah Cannon was also complimentary of Chu as he departed.

"As a physician and longtime public policy advocate, Dr. Chu plans to continue his mission to enhance access to high-quality care and improve the overall health of our population," she said. "With the current state of the healthcare industry, I can think of no better time for a champion like Dr. Chu to help lead public policy efforts. We thank him for his service and wish him the very best in his future endeavors."

In the release, Stokes expressed appreciation for the board’s confidence in selecting him, at least in the immediate term, to lead the organization through the leadership change.

"During this transition period, I am committed to reinforcing and advancing Memorial Hermann’s unwavering commitment to patient safety, quality, and high reliability," he said.

Philip Betbeze is the senior leadership editor at HealthLeaders.

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