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Women in Healthcare Leadership Spotlight: Dr. Penny Wheeler

Analysis  |  By Melanie Blackman  
   December 03, 2020

The Allina Health CEO shares insights about her professional journey and how she strives to "change healthcare for the better."

Dr. Penny Wheeler has served in healthcare for more than 40 years, first as a board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist and then rising to the C-suite.

She currently serves as the CEO of Allina Health, a 12-hospital nonprofit health system based in Minneapolis that has operations in both Minnesota and Wisconsin. Prior to leading the system, Wheeler served as chief clinical officer for Allina and also worked as a physician at Women's Health Consultants in Minneapolis.

In addition to her leadership positions, Wheeler also had the unique experience of acting as an obstetrician in an episode of "Unsolved Mysteries."

Delivering care has been a key aspect of Wheeler's life since she was a child, with the core of her interest in healthcare. "I was always one of those kids who wanted to be there and help [those ailing]. … That service to others was something that my parents certainly embedded in me," Wheeler says. "What I learned from them is … that's what leadership's about: [taking] practical steps [and] idealism. Some of my biggest mentors have been the patients that I've been fortunate to be associated with, who taught me about broader needs that existed, and broader experiences, than I had in my personal life.”

When Wheeler got older, she says she realized that "when you combine science with human understanding, you come into healthcare." In the 10th grade, she decided she wanted to be a doctor.

Wheeler has an undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota and a Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Minnesota Medical School.

Dr. Penny Wheeler, CEO, Allina Health (Photo courtesy of Allina Health)

Changing healthcare for the better

Wheeler's first experience in healthcare leadership came when she was elected president of the medical staff of Abbott Northwestern Hospital, which is part of the Allina Health network.

"I first got attracted to [healthcare leadership] when I was elected medical staff president, and then I got kind of radicalized around quality improvement with Don Berwick and [the Institute for Healthcare Improvement] being part of my transformation," she says.

Wheeler’s career path continued on the leadership track after that, even though she loved being a physician.

"An obstetrician/gynecologist is a wonderful profession because you get to be in primary care, you get to be in the operating room, and you get to be part of incredible moments with the delivery of a child,” she says. “It's a range of that, to telling somebody in the most compassionate way possible that they have a cancer diagnosis. Being a physician is a great gift and when people ask me if I miss practicing, I say, ‘Every day.’ You see the people in front of you, and you hopefully can make a difference in their life every day."

The more she got involved in leadership, the more she says she asked, "How [can] we change healthcare for the better?"

After being elected medical staff president, she was elevated to Allina Health’s board of directors and chaired the Allina Health Quality Committee.

"From there, I became chief clinical officer for the whole health system, and then became CEO six years ago," Wheeler says.

"I always tell people I'm an ‘accidental CEO’ because I never planned it. I was happy and felt honored to be a physician and a healer," she says. "Even through all the challenges, and we're in a storm of one right now, I feel fortunate to be in the role."

Wheeler says she's been "fortunate" in her climb to the C-suite, adding that she has been supported along the way and didn’t encounter “significant obstacles.” Although there were some [challenges] she noticed over time, Wheeler says she didn't let them negatively impact her.

"I was the first physician to lead the organization and the first woman to lead the organization, so that was a bit of a first, but I cannot say that I faced a lot of, at least, visible barriers,” Wheeler says. “I'm sure there have been some, but I feel like I've been fortunate to be in this position."

The power of ‘thin skin’ and caring

As a leader, Wheeler says she focuses on relationships, particularly with those she serves, and the empathy needed to lead.

"One of the things that I always say about leadership is that you just can never, ever forget who you serve and why," she says. "I might write a book in the future, and it will be about the power of having thin skin, because if you're deeply impacted and affected by things that are going around in the lives of those you're trying to serve, and you're trying to understand them as deeply as possible, then you make the best choices as possible as a leader.”

Wheeler says that in addition to cultivating relationships, one of her favorite things about being a leader is supporting others who want to be leaders themselves.

"In a leadership position, you get to hold those relationships, see how to unleash others to develop, and support them in their development," she says. "Learning from others and supporting others as they grow and become leaders in their own right … that's probably the favorite thing, because it's all about relationships at the end of the day."

The culture of Allina Health revolves around caring, Wheeler says, with a goal to surround patients with all the help needed to “make you feel loved."

"I'm proud of bringing love into the conversation. Love along with expertise is a powerful combination, [and] that's what our care teams do,” she says.

Additionally, Allina Health has a strong focus on serving underserved patient populations, according to Wheeler, but she notes that the system has “got more work to do."

The organization is continuing to embrace the transformation of healthcare and promote care equity.

"We are trying as an organization, and as we partner with other payers in the market, so that we can change the business model of healthcare and get paid for what matters most to the people we serve," Wheeler says. “[We're] going to focus on the best outcomes, the best experience, the best access, the best equity principles and the affordability."

Located in Minneapolis, a city that was the epicenter for significant civil unrest during the summer following the killing of George Floyd, Allina experienced a “wake-up call” along with the rest of the community, according to Wheeler.

Going forward, the organization will focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion in four key roles.

  • As a provider: "We serve others, so how can we make sure that our care is equitably placed?"
  • As an employer: "How do we make sure we attract a leadership team that reflects the community and that we keep and have a fertilized soil here where people feel included and respected, not in spite of their differences but because of them?"
  • As an investor: Allina will focus on purchasing "services [from] minority-owned businesses and minority-managed investment portfolios who value equity and diversity."
  • As a community member: The system will partner with the community to “understand their needs and support them."

Making the jump into the C-suite

Wheeler's advice for those in the workforce who want to further their career is to follow their passions.

"Do your best possible job in the job that you're in and that aligns with your passions," Wheeler says. “If you find something that you're passionate about and you do your best job there, I think the rest takes care of itself, frankly."

The other key advice is something a mentor once told her, which is to keep perspective.

"When you're in roles like this, there are a lot of things that are aimed at you. A lot of arrows that come your way. And what [my mentor] said was, ‘Those arrows, some of them will miss and land on the ground. Don't pick them up and stab them into yourself,’" Wheeler says. "In other words: focus on the things that are important rather than things that seem urgent but, in the grand scheme of things, aren't as important to the changes you're trying to make in healthcare to improve lives."

In this monthly segment, HealthLeaders features women healthcare leaders who share their career experiences, accomplishments, and leadership styles.

“One of the things that I always say about leadership is that you just can never, ever forget who you serve and why.”

Melanie Blackman is the strategy editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.

Photo credit: Allina Health's Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. Photo courtesy of Allina Health.

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