My Kind of Medicine: Real Lives of Practicing Internists: Susan L. Turney, MD, MS, FACMPE, FACP

Susan L. Turney, MD, MS, FACMPE, FACP

ACP Fellow:
Susan L. Turney, MD, MS, FACMPE, FACP

Current Occupation:
CEO, Marshfield Clinic Health System, Marshfield, WI

Marshfield Clinic/St. Joseph's Hospital, Marshfield, WI

Medical School:
University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Madison, WI

As a young girl growing up in a small town in northern Wisconsin, Dr. Susan Turney recalls telling her grade school teacher on a day they were discussing career choices that she was going to grow up to be a doctor, to which her teacher replied, "Girls don't become doctors." Several years later she received a similar message from her father when she was selecting math and science courses for her high school curriculum and he suggested she include typing and shorthand classes so she would "have something to fall back on."

Laughing about it now, Dr. Turney says that her teacher and dad, "for all the wrong reasons, were actually great motivators." Dr. Turney is a woman who laughs easily and finds little to complain about. "It was a generational thing," she says. "My dad was a strong supporter and truly believed in me. He just wanted to make sure I was protected."

Growing up in an era where career choices for women meant teaching or nursing, Dr. Turney was determined to become a doctor. After earning her medical degree from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine, she enjoyed a long career practicing and teaching internal medicine before setting her sights on a new goal that would dispel yet another myth, "girls don't become CEOs."

Making the list

Effective September 1, 2014, Dr. Turney became the first CEO of the Marshfield Clinic Health System in Marshfield, WI, one of the largest comprehensive medical systems in the United States. As CEO she oversees a system that provides patient care in more than 50 locations in northern, central and western Wisconsin, and includes two hospitals, a graduate medical education program, and a research foundation. Prior to Marshfield, Dr. Turney served three years as President and CEO of the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA) and seven years as CEO and Executive Vice President of the Wisconsin Medical Society.

In addition to her executive leadership experience, Dr. Turney's career includes more than 20 years as a practicing physician and several years as Program Director of the Transitional Residency Program and Medical Director of Patient Financial services at Marshfield Clinic (now Marshfield Clinic Health System). In recent years she has fulfilled appointments by the Governor of Wisconsin and the U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary, served on the board of eHealth Initiative, and was named to Modern Healthcare's list of 50 Most Influential Physician Executives in 2012, 2013, and 2014.

Caring for others

The oldest of eight children, Dr. Turney's leadership skills and interest in medicine were honed at an early age. "When you're the oldest of eight, parents start counting on you quite early to help care for the younger children," she admits. As a young caregiver, her role models were local physicians.

"I had such respect for the people taking care of us," says Dr. Turney. "I grew up at a time and in a community where physicians practiced in small solo practices. They did home visits, were highly respected and were integral to the community." "Plus," she laughs, "they did things like fix broken bones and that seemed fun to me."

Having fun is important to Dr. Turney, and despite her busy schedule, she makes time for her interests. She is an avid reader and often has two books going at the same time, she sings in her church choir, and loves spending time with family and friends. For 30 years, she enjoyed running (and achieved her goal of running a marathon!); but, after onset of arthritis in the hip forced her to slow down she replaced running with walking. And when she wants to really slow down, she and her husband retreat to their cabin in the woods in northern Wisconsin where the sky is so clear they can spot meteor showers and see the Milky Way.

Dr. Turney married high school sweetheart, Peter Turney, a teacher-turned-restaurateur. She had her first child while doing her residency at Marshfield Clinic and her second child during her first year of clinical practice. She admits that raising two young children early in her career was not easy, but says it helped that she and her fellow practitioners worked as a team and often covered for each other.

"I don't think one ever achieves a perfect work/life balance," says Dr. Turney. "As a physician, I knew my schedule was going to be unpredictable and I wouldn't make it to every school event, so I learned early on to only make promises to my children that I knew I could deliver on." The demands of her career apparently did not diminish her children's desire to pursue professional careers of their own. Her daughter, who is married with an 18-month-old daughter, is currently completing her residency in psychiatry in Chicago and her son is a lawyer who practices in Phoenix, AZ.

The larger view

Dr. Turney chose internal medicine because of the physician-patient relationship and comprehensive care practiced by internists. "I loved all of my medical rotations," she says, "but I had great role models in internal medicine, and I wanted to be face-to-face with patients and actively involved in all aspects of their care—preventive, acute, and chronic."

Later, moving from clinical practice to the business side of care delivery was a natural transition for Dr. Turney as she experienced first-hand some of the stressors the healthcare system imposed on physicians and their patients. "I've always had a passion for taking care of patients and knew that would not diminish no matter what I chose to do with my career," she says, "but as payment models began changing, I saw a huge disconnect between clinical care and the business of medicine and I wanted to be involved in closing the gap to help patients get better outcomes and help the system run better."

As CEO of Marshfield Health System, Dr. Turney will be responsible for a broad spectrum of care for multiple communities with diverse needs. It will be her job to make sure patients and physicians have what they need, including safe facilities, state of the art equipment, and the right staff. "Those who manage the business of care delivery directly impact what happens to patients," says Dr. Turney, "and it is essential for physician leaders and administrators to have a relationship built on trust, to share a similar vision, and work "hand-in-glove" to serve the needs of each community."

Leaps and rounds

Dr. Turney is enthusiastic about the future of healthcare. "Medical students today are wonderfully bright, energetic people," she says. "They have a lot of faith in the system and bring a wonderful energy to patient care." She advises students to "embrace this wonderful profession, remain optimistic and get involved in the community." "Set up a health screening clinic, a children's running clinic, or get involved with a food bank," she suggests, "the pleasure of practicing medicine increases exponentially."

Dr. Turney served two years as transitional Governor of ACP's Wisconsin Chapter, is the recipient of the 2000 ACP Evergreen Award, and encourages medical students and physicians to get aboard the A train. "ACP offers great resources and makes it easier for physicians to be successful, and the life-long friendships I have are a wonderful side benefit."

On paper, it is easy to see the training, achievements, and experience that have made Dr. Turney successful. Less visible, but equally significant, is how she cultivates relationships, embraces change, and moves forward with optimism and self-confidence. "I've been very lucky to have a wonderful career path," says Dr.Turney, "but sometimes you have to be willing to take a personal risk to achieve your goals. If you are passionate about something and the opportunity to do something challenging presents itself, 'you take a leap'."

From a little girl's dream of medical rounds, to a CEO's vision of creating "a continuum of care from cradle to grave," Dr. Turney made the leap from clinical care to executive leadership, but her mission and focus never wavered. "I'm still serving patients," she says, "I'm just doing it in a different way."

Back to November 2014 Issue of IMpact

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