Writer: Max Crampton-Thomas
2 min read March 2021 — The vast Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill health sector is supported by a research arm rooted in the world-class universities in this part of North Carolina. In an interview with Invest:, Dr. Bill Fulkerson, executive vice president of Duke University Health System, talks about the main challenge for the health sector — staying ahead of the enormous population growth in the region as a whole — and how the experience of the pandemic has upturned aspects of the system.
As a leader in the health industry, what are your impressions from the last year?
It has been an incredible year. The one thing that has been so impressive to all of us was the enormous effort and commitment that I saw in taking care of patients with COVID and other patients. We started seeing patients in the late winter here. We cut back on our routine care considerably. We fought the battles that all healthcare systems fought around supply chain, making sure to get the proper equipment for our teams. The perseverance of our teams and our staff was just extraordinary. We were well prepared in terms of emergency systems we practiced but, even with that, the performance and resilience of our team was truly heartening.
What are your impressions about the expansion of telehealth?
Even before COVID hit, we were dipping our toes into telehealth. For instance, we have our Tele-stroke Network. We would do consultations, too, over the telephone or by video. But when we needed to cut back on our in-person visits, telehealth just exploded. We put the infrastructure in place very quickly in order to scale that up and expand it. I tell people we made 10 years of progress in just a few months. And it’s here to stay.
What are you doing to ensure that access to health is commensurate with Raleigh-Durham’s growing population?
It starts with our provider physicians, advanced practice providers and nursing workforce. We have a large physician workforce in the Triangle area of well over 2,000, as well as about 350 primary care providers, which is the largest in this area. So, it starts with them and their buy-in to the idea that we must have the best quality, and that we also have to deliver care at a competitive cost. We examine our practices all the time; looking for opportunities to enhance quality even more while being as efficient and productive as we can, so that everyone can get the care they need. One of the great things about Raleigh-Durham is that it’s growing, people are moving here. One of the biggest challenges we have is trying to stay ahead of that curve and create access to care. Only then will patients get what they need in as seamless a fashion as possible.
What is Duke Health doing to collaborate with the life sciences sector in the Triangle area?
One of the really special things about Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill is our fabulous universities — Duke, NCCU, UNC and NC State — that have brilliant people who are constantly innovating in their areas and finding business partners to develop new companies and move discoveries forward. These universities have added billions to the local economy in the last decade. They are part of why this area thrives so much.
How are you meeting the challenges of rolling out the vaccine?
Right now, we have five sites and the capacity to administer 25,000-30,000 doses a week. We were working with the state on some mass vaccination sites in the city but before we do that, we’re going to need more doses made available. Those plans are sitting on our desks, waiting for when we’re able to put them into motion. We’re grateful, though, for the incredible progress that has occurred over the last year with the vaccines. It’s certainly heartening to think where we would be at this moment if the two vaccines we now have had turned out to be less effective.
What are Duke Health’s near-term outlook and goals?
Quality is always job one, so we’ll continue to stress quality and doing even more than we are doing today. Growth is the other priority. Again, because of the explosive population growth around here, we have to work very hard to stay ahead of the game. Growth also means more jobs. Today, the health system employs about 23,000 people. If you take the School of Medicine and the University and add all of us together, we are the second-largest private employer in North Carolina. And we’re set on more growth.
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