JPS President and CEO Karen Duncan, MD, calls herself a fixer—a leader who enjoys tackling change. With decades of medical and executive leadership experience, Dr. Duncan meets challenges by cutting through chaos and working to identify priorities and take action. She knows that periods of change and transition can stimulate creativity and innovation.
“Without change, we don't get better. We saw it with COVID. We had no playbook at all, and we had to figure out how we were going to take what was changing every day, from how we care for the patient, to how we kept our patients and our employees safe,” Dr. Duncan says.
Dr. Duncan is a board-certified pediatrician with medical and executive leadership experience. She’s got impressive academic chops, with a Bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry from Smith College, a Medical degree from Emory University School of Medicine, and an Executive MBA from Georgia State University.
We recently sat down with Dr. Duncan for a wide-ranging conversation that touched on her childhood, education, and professional journey that led her to the helm of JPS Health Network.
Dr. Duncan: leadership
Dr. Duncan has extensive experience working in large public health academic centers and has held executive leadership positions at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital and Chicago’s Cook County Health and Hospitals System. She later came to Fort Worth to work with Tarrant County to outline the healthcare needs of the community.
She was tapped to be Executive Vice President, Community Health Services in 2017, and was named Chief Operating Officer in January 2020. She now holds the top job of President and CEO, succeeding Robert Earley, who retired.
What brought you to JPS and what keeps you here?
Dr. Duncan: [Former COO Bill Whitman] knew that I'd had a lot of experience in the community. My joy is really on the community side. I don't like being in the office. I like being out in the community, understanding the patients that we're caring for and how we are building these communities. So he said, “We need some help in our community program. Would you be willing to come?”
I have always been in the safety net world with public hospitals. It's just who I am. I've always felt very fortunate. I was raised in a good home and began to realize what I had was not what everyone else had. It became the right thing to do—when people need help, no matter what it is and if you have the ability to help, then you need to do that.
Can you please talk about the importance of culture and how we as team members can continue to manifest that in our day-to-day work?
Dr. Duncan: If you really look at the three Rules of the Road™, we often forget that behind each of those three rules are values. Those won't change. They're about respect, caring, and empathy. They're about accountability.
What may look a little different is that I come with a different lens than Mr. Earley did. I come as a female. I come as an African-American. I come as a physician. I always place the patient, the family, the community at the center of the table.
When I look at our strategy and where we're going to place our emphasis, it's going to be directed toward the patient and how we become a better workforce, so that we can provide better care for our patients. We are providing equitable healthcare, and using our technology so our patients can benefit. At the end of the day, we're improving the outcomes of our patients. I do see that our three rules are highly relevant and will get us to where we need to be.
What would you like team members to know about you and your leadership style?
Dr. Duncan: I think that varies based on what you're having to face each day. I think you've got to be flexible and I think that’s even more important now. There are times in which you're going to be more collaborative in your decision-making, and you can lean on your team to help you with it. Then there are going to be other times in which you've got to take that decision on yourself. I think what I'd like team members to know is that at the end of the day, I can't do it without them.
It takes strong team members and it takes a whole village in order for everyone to be successful. I make sure that you're successful because I know when you're successful, the organization is successful.
About Dr. Duncan
What’s the best part of being a pediatrician?
Dr. Duncan: I would say that it is probably the most enjoyable profession because, first of all, children want to live and be excited. They want nothing but the best and joy. I had considered being a pediatric surgeon. I am a fixer, but I also wanted a family and decided to do general pediatrics.
Did you say you work out at 4:30 a.m.?
Dr. Duncan: I do my Peloton or I hit the treadmill. I can do a lot more in the morning where there's not a lot of texts or calls. I have a strong faith and so beginning in prayer and making sure that it's not about me, understanding what the work may be for that day. Then I get my coffee and I do my workout. It just kind of puts me in a different place, and cleanses my mind so I don't let a lot of that noise in.
What brings you joy and delight when you come to work?
Dr. Duncan: It's always the people. Just the excitement of watching what people can do. I'm just always impressed. I think it's just being a proud mom. When they come in and say ‘this is what I've done.’ I'm thinking, wow! Or we sit around a table and someone's presenting something, I think, wow, this is good. I'm a lifelong learner, so I learn from others. And so that's the joy that I get every day.