After more than three decades helping to shape WellMed, Dr. Susan Lee heads into retirement
On April 1, 2022, Dr. Susan Lee retired after nearly 31 years at WellMed. As one of the first doctors to join the enterprise, she wore many hats at WellMed, from small-town country doctor in Boerne to chief medical officer of WellMed-owned Physicians Health Choice, and much more.
Now, Dr. Lee says it’s time to do some of the things she never had the time to do before.
We talked with Dr. Lee five days before she left the company.
“I am in a peaceful place. This is my last Monday morning at WellMed,” Dr. Lee said. “I believe that at the end of the day, we all reflect on our work and our lives, our successes and failures. I feel privileged to work for WellMed for nearly 31 years, and I am proud to have been part of this mission.”
What was it that attracted you to WellMed?
I had worked in a staff-model HMO, before I went to work with George Rapier. However, I didn’t enjoy that job because I felt the physicians didn’t have any input into critical decisions for operations or improving patient care.
When I met George, I was reluctant to work with another HMO, based on my previous experience. However, he described his vision, to use the resources available in a Medicare Advantage program to better serve both patients and primary care physicians.
The input of the PCPs and the needs of the patients would inform the program, with excellent support from the business leaders of WellMed. Dr. Rapier’s commitment was to partner with PCPs to change the face of health care delivery, and that was a mission worth joining.
What are the biggest changes you have seen at the company over the years?
Obviously, the size, the growth of the company and the success. Trying to navigate the balance of going from a small to a large company has been challenging. But it’s always been Dr. Rapier’s commitment to change the face of health care delivery, and WellMed is doing that.
What are some of the things you are most proud of?
WellMed started with two clinics – Greenway Park and Trinity. I joined the group in the first year. Subsequently I became the lead physician at Plaza Medical Group, with two female doctors and a female nurse practitioner on staff. During those early years, we still did hospital work. I was honored to chair the department of family practice at St. Luke’s Baptist Hospital, and then became the chief of staff of the hospital. I was the first female physician and the first family practitioner in that role.
In the early days, the female physicians organized a group we named WOW, Women of WellMed, to offer encouragement and support in facing the unique challenges of being a female physician, often balancing roles as mothers and doctors. When I went to medical school, it was still male dominated, at a three-to-one male to female ratio. But I always felt I had great opportunities at WellMed and in my career.
For example, in 2005, I was honored to serve as chief medical officer for Physicians Health Choice, WellMed’s own Medicare Advantage Plan, which UnitedHealthcare acquired in 2011.
My journey changed course in 2008, when I returned to clinical practice at WellMed at Boerne. I felt I needed to devote more time to my two sons, Johnny and Gabriel, while they were in middle school. In fact, there have been several times in my life when I’ve stepped down from a leadership position to focus on family. I assumed those decisions, while right for me, might affect future opportunities for leadership. But in truth, WellMed leaders supported those decisions. My message to other physicians, men and women, would be to follow your priorities and strive to contribute, knowing that different seasons in life bring different opportunities.
In fact, some of my fondest memories are the eight years I spent in the clinic in Boerne in hands-on patient care. I had always thought I wanted to be a family practitioner in a small town. My boys were in school in Boerne, and played trumpet in the band. I became the “band doctor.” At Friday night football games, many of my patients were there too, cheering on their grandchildren. My participation on the board of the Rainbow Senior Center at Kronkosky Place in Boerne also allowed for a community partnership. It was a great example of the chronic care model, combining both clinical care and community efforts on behalf of the patient.
I enjoyed serving as treasurer for the Kendall County Medical Society, which met once a month over lunch at the local Mexican restaurant, enjoying the camaraderie of our colleagues. It was a dream come true for me to be that small-town doc.
In 2015, I came back into leadership as chief of central clinical services, where we created the specialty drug review program, the focused review of hospital admissions as observations versus DRG, the closer attention to ARU and LTAC review, and initiated home health services review. I served in that role for five years.
Where do you see the company in 5 or 10 years?
Time will tell and it is not for me to predict. But I know our commitment to value-based care, which was a new concept when Dr. Rapier started WellMed, is now embraced across the health care industry. It is an intuitively obvious concept. If you provide better preventive care for patients, they remain healthier, so care is less costly. That creates the “margin for the mission,” that allows continued innovation and improvements in health care for our patients.
WellMed will continue to grow. The basic concept of value-based care, which is the story Dr. Rapier has been telling for 31 years, is no longer a novelty. It works, and WellMed patients are the beneficiaries.
What are some of the memories you cherish?
Last year, my role shifted to senior medical director for the West Texas expansion. Our team worked to show West Texas providers that WellMed is the right choice for them and for their patients, and to underscore the value WellMed can bring to their practices.
Last year, I met a female physician similar in age to me in Wichita Falls who was interested in WellMed. She shared with me the challenges she faced going through med school and residency as a Black female physician in those earlier times. She overcame those challenges to face yet another, as she required a heart transplant several years ago. Yet, even in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, she remained committed to seeing her patients. She never stopped being their doctor. Tragically, she contracted COVID-19 and died, but all of us who knew here will remember her as a health care hero.
Another favorite memory from this past year was the support the WellMed team provided for a clinic for indigent seniors in Amarillo, the JO Wyatt Community Health Center. WellMed Charitable Foundation Executive Director Carol Zernial facilitated a giving program for them, and we raised over $26,000.
These are just a few of many fond memories I will take with me. Most of all, I will remember my patients, friends and coworkers who shared this journey with me.
Any big (or small) plans for retirement?
First thing I am going to do is visit a spa in Arizona for a week of reflection and relaxation. Then, I come back to San Antonio for my younger son Gabriel’s wedding and his graduation from medical school.
I hope to satisfy a little wanderlust with travel both here and abroad. I followed a dream and bought a camper van. After the wedding and graduation, I’m taking off in the camper to Sedona, Arizona and elsewhere. I’ll also have more time to spend with my 84-year-old mom and my siblings in Houston.
I am seriously thinking about participating in Optum’s One World Surgery outreach to help people in developing nations. And I am not ruling out the possibility of doing some work with WellMed as a consultant, if those opportunities should arise.
Retirement will offer me many other opportunities, like time to read more and to pursue my passion of writing poetry. Maybe I’ll even get acquainted with virtual reality video games! Never too old to learn something new.
What would people be surprised to learn about you?
I am known as an extrovert – I love people – but people may be surprised to learn that I equally value my time alone. Ideally, we can have the balance of both.
We need each other.
I do believe that we have become very adept at working remotely, but I don’t think we can ever lose the value of getting to know people personally – that happens with the opportunities to see each other face to face.
We need to create relationships that are supportive. . . personal relationships create that feeling of trust that is so important to the work environment.
If there is anything I will miss, there is a little bit of nostalgia about separating from the people I have worked with for many years. I will deeply miss that daily engagement with people I admire, and I will always honor and respect the work of the many good people at WellMed.