10 questions with Shelbourn Stevens, president of New Hanover Regional Medical Center and Novant Health’s Coastal Market.
When officials in New Hanover County agreed to sell the publicly held New Hanover Regional Medical Center to Novant Health in 2020, they forged a dominant entity for healthcare delivery throughout the Cape Fear region. Novant operates the largest hospital in Brunswick County and many other local facilities. Amid all that, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the area, putting more stress on healthcare providers.
With that in mind, we thought the timing was perfect to connect with Shelbourn Stevens to discuss healthcare in Brunswick County. Stevens was recently promoted to president of NHRMC and the coastal market, which includes oversight of Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center and Pender Memorial Hospital. For the eight years prior, he was president and chief operating officer of Brunswick Medical Center, the position he held when this email interview was conducted.
Stevens, who lives in Supply, provided the following responses to my questions, and his responses have been lightly edited for space and style.
1. Can you tell us a little about yourself, including your hobbies and interests when you’re not at work?
I grew up in Danbury, North Carolina, and started my career as a respiratory aide with Novant Health in 1990. While working full time, I received both my bachelor’s degree and an MBA. In 2012 I took over as president and chief operating officer at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center. Outside of work and the COVID-19 pandemic, I like to travel. I learned to play piano when I was four, and I played every Sunday at the church I grew up in. Today, I still play and find it as my own form of personal therapy.
2. Now that Novant is operating New Hanover Regional Center, how does Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center fit into the picture going forward?
New Hanover Regional Medical Center will become Novant Health’s flagship facility for the coastal market, which Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center will remain a part of, and leader of a regionally focused, integrated delivery network in southeastern North Carolina. New Hanover Regional Medical Center will be the local leader of the formative stages of this significant regional expansion strategy, enabling it to be a critical partner with substantial influence and resources as we jointly develop strategic plans.
3. Will Brunswick County residents be more likely or less likely to have to go to Wilmington to receive advanced or specialized medical services vs. remaining in Brunswick County? What specialty areas do you see expanding first in Brunswick County, if any?
This partnership will bring a more seamless experience for Brunswick County residents should they need advanced or specialized care. Advanced and specialized care will primarily stay in New Hanover County, and the expanded UNC partnership will bring more access to care for our Brunswick County residents.
Regarding the expansion timeline of specialty areas in Brunswick County, we are still working with local leadership and physicians to determine the critical needs of our community.
4. When you look at medical needs and services in Brunswick County, what community health issues concern you the most? What keeps you up at night?
I think the one thing that keeps me up at night is making sure every single resident has access to remarkable care whenever they need it. We are a rural county with an older population that might need more specialized care. In some cases, they don’t have the means to travel to get their routine appointments to make sure their health is the best it can be. It’s something I constantly think about, and I am proud that Novant Health is making access to care a priority.
5. One of the controversial issues in Novant’s purchase of NHRMC was the decision to limit the $1.25 billion that moved to the New Hanover Community Endowment to only serve New Hanover County despite NHRMC’s regional footprint. Does this decision have an impact on Novant’s ability or commitment to support community needs and interests in Brunswick County?
This partnership decision does not have an impact on our commitment to support Brunswick County’s needs. Residents in Brunswick County should be really excited about this partnership as it combines the best of both worlds with both Novant Health and New Hanover Regional Medical Center, while also expanding the affiliation with UNC Health and UNC School of Medicine.
6. We read about shortages of medical professionals like family doctors and nurses in many parts of the country. What’s the situation in Brunswick County, and in what areas of practices or occupations are we most deficient?
Brunswick County is rapidly growing, and we are constantly evaluating the care our community needs most. Today, we see the most need for more providers in primary care, gastroenterology, neurology, behavioral health and pulmonology.
7. You were a hospital executive through this COVID-19 pandemic. How close did we come in Brunswick County to cases overwhelming the system and how did you feel your staff responded to all the challenges?
When COVID-19 first started, we were concerned because our hospital serves a population that is high-risk for severe complications from the virus. But because we are part of a larger healthcare organization, we were able to adjust and plan as needed to accommodate for any potential surges we saw in cases to prevent overwhelming the system and our team members.
I can’t say enough about our team members. I can’t thank each one of them enough for their selflessness and commitment to taking care of the community in such an uncertain and scary time for many. They have been moving at a sprint’s pace during the COVID-19 marathon and have not let up once in their dedication to our patients and community.
8. What are some of the most important lessons the community needs to learn from the COVID experience using your perspective as both a county resident and a hospital executive?
I think the most important lesson the community can learn from the COVID-19 experience is that we really have to be open to listening and trusting our health officials in such a time of uncertainty. At the start, people were masked and listened to all of the guidelines but as time went on, masks started becoming less prevalent. I know people are tired of COVID-19 and no one could have expected us to be here one year later, but by listening to officials about preventive steps, including getting the COVID-19 vaccine, we can get out of this pandemic sooner and safely.
9. Running a hospital in Brunswick County must involve hurricane and disaster response. We’ve had several significant storms in recent years, and experts expect that trend to continue. What lessons have been learned and changes made from recent storms in terms of the hospital’s ability to respond to natural disasters?
I think what I’ve learned most from both hurricanes and even COVID-19 is that you always have to be ready with a plan A, plan B and even a plan C. With natural disasters, you can never predict what will happen, so having the contingency plans in place helps the team members at Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center feel prepared to face what comes our way.
10. If you could “correct the record,” what are one or two of the biggest misconceptions you encounter about hospitals and healthcare in 2021 that people get from movies, TV or news media?
I know that I’ve heard from some community members that they are afraid to go to clinics or the hospitals because they are worried about COVID-19. This means that people are forgoing important screenings or not coming into the emergency department when they should. Our environmental services teams at the hospitals and clinics are properly trained on how to disinfect rooms and supplies, and they continue to do a remarkable job throughout the pandemic. I encourage everyone to know that the hospitals and clinics are safe and to get care when they need it.