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Published in CenterView on August 19, 2013
Kevin Cook
Kevin Cook

CEO infuses new blood into the clinical enterprise

By Matt Westerfield

Twenty years ago, Kevin Cook bypassed law school and joined the Marine Corps because he wanted to learn how to become a leader.

The native of Miami, Fla., who was named chief executive officer of the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s adult hospitals last month, enlisted in the Marine Corps and completed Officer Candidates School at Quantico, Va., in 1991 after graduating from Hobart and William Smith College in Geneva, N.Y.

“When I was in college, I thought a lot about going to law school, but I was also fascinated with the military,” Cook said. “My senior year of college I was president of the student body at Hobart, and I didn’t think I’d done a very good job.

“I knew that going into law school, I wouldn’t learn a whole lot more about leadership, but I thought going into the Marine Corps, I would.”

He would spend the following eight years in the corps and “never regretted the decision for a minute.”

Cook takes over the role of head of the adult hospitals from Dr. Janet Harris, chief nursing executive officer, who had served as interim CEO since 2011. But he almost spent his career as an F-18 fighter pilot.

Medical issues from the high-G flight maneuvers caused him to look at other options, and instead, he earned his MBA from Boston College.

“At the time, it was disappointing, but it’s worked out,” he said of his military days. “I have a hard time looking back and saying that I regret anything, but by the same token, at the time, it was very disappointing.”

After resigning his commission, Cook took a job as director of operations for a health-care organization in Texas before accepting his first position in Mississippi as an administrator at River Region Health System in 2002, where he spearheaded projects to improve hospital efficiency. And in 2006, he made the switch to Cincinnati, taking on the role of CEO for Mercy Hospital Mt. Airy.

“I decided that I wanted to give the not-for-profit side a chance,” he said.

From there, he became the regional CEO of Mercy hospitals in Scranton, Pa., before eventually overseeing several Mercy hospitals in Toledo, Ohio.

But he was happy to return to Mississippi.

“I love this part of the country,” he said. “This is my third time living in the state, between being stationed in Meridian and working in Vicksburg.”

From the unique position of being the only level 1 trauma center and the only academic medical center in the state, joining UMMC was an opportunity for Cook to participate in the growth and evolution of the health of Mississippians.

“You could have a profound impact on the direction that a lot of citizens of this state take over the next five or six years,” he said.

“He brings a real passion for the mission and work of the organization that will guide his day-to-day decisions,” said Harris. “From an operational perspective, he has an in-depth understanding of the clinical enterprise as well as experience from other organizations to help us look at our work and processes through new lenses.”

Cook said that the health-care industry is in the midst of redefining value in terms of the highest quality service for the lowest cost, and UMMC is moving in that direction. He’s hoping to help it pick up the pace.
“This organization can take a giant step forward,” he said. “We need to develop a hypersensitivity to poor quality and to poor operational performance.

“Doing this will give us the freedom to focus on the things we really need to focus on — such as our statewide mission to reduce health disparities.”

Married and the father of four, Cook is happy to see his 18-year-old daughter entering the University of Mississippi this fall. His 20-year-old son just completed basic training in the Marine Corps at Parris Island.

“For me, health care is not just about treating acute, episodic disease. It’s about making an impact on literally the social fabric of the community in a profound way,” he said.

“Being able to make an impact on a greater number of lives through a variety of ways just makes sense, and that’s what I want to spend my time doing.”