Vanderbilt CEO C. Wright Pinson, MBA, MD, FACS
Vanderbilt CEO C. Wright Pinson, MBA, MD, FACS | C. Wright Pinson, MD, Vanderbilt CEO, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Liver Transplants, Julie Damon, Vanderbilt Transplant Center, Soul Incision

Dr. C. Wright Pinson (left) poses with his former patient Julie Damon and country superstar Charlie Daniels after being honored by the T.J. Martell Foundation in March.
Surgeon Pioneers Transplantation, Healthcare in Middle Tennessee

C. Wright Pinson, MBA, MD, FACS, marches to his own drumbeat … literally.

Vanderbilt Health System’s chief executive officer, deputy vice chancellor for Health Affairs and senior associate dean for Clinical Affairs is a former IBM engineer, a pioneer in the field of organ transplantation research and a drummer in his band, Soul Incision.

So what’s left for a guy who has seemingly done it all? The simple answer is ‘plenty’ as he helps navigate Vanderbilt through the uncertainty of healthcare reform and works to make quality care accessible to all.

 

The Road to Healthcare

The fourth child of an Air Force major general, Pinson was a military kid with roots stretching from Los Alamos to Boston. After graduating in Physics from the University of Colorado, Pinson worked as an IBM engineer while completing a Master’s in Business Administration in finance.

“I had a great job; but while I was enjoying research, I still wanted to work more directly with people,” Pinson said. “I put that desire and my engineering background together and came up with medicine.”

Pinson graduated from Vanderbilt’s School of Medicine in 1980 and went on to complete surgery fellowships in cardiovascular physiology at Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU), hepatopancreatobiliary surgery at the Lahey Clinic Medical Center and transplantation at Harvard/Deaconess Hospital.

In 1988, after completing his stint at Harvard, Pinson headed back to the Pacific Northwest and founded the region’s first liver transplantation program at OHSU. He then founded the first liver transplantation program in the V.A. system and returned to Vanderbilt in 1990 to do the same. A year later, Pinson would perform the first of nearly 1,500 Vanderbilt liver transplants to date.

 

A First for Nashville

Williamson County Spanish teacher Julie Damon was 45 when she became ill after a trip to Madrid, Spain. Her flu-like symptoms worsened, and Damon was diagnosed with fulminant hepatic failure shortly before slipping into a coma. Damon pulled through Vanderbilt’s first liver transplantation under the care of Pinson and his newly-trained surgical team.

“Dr. Pinson is the consummate doctor,” said the now-retired grandmother of eight. “He sacrifices everything for his patients, and I’ve realized over the years all the factors that went into my being here today. I don’t have the words to express my gratitude to him and the Vanderbilt Transplant Center.”

 

Transforming Transplantation

Two years later, Pinson was appointed director of the Vanderbilt Transplant Center, a position he inherited from colleague Bill Frist, MD, after the latter’s successful run for Senate.

Under Pinson’s guidance, Vanderbilt’s Transplant Center established the nation’s first nurse practitioner transplantation program, a transplantation pharmacy residency and transplant administration degree. Other accomplishments include a Return-to-Work Program for transplantation patients, an outcomes research program and transplant programs for infectious disease and psychiatry.

“I’m proud of all the research done in the Transplant Center and the educational programs that have come from it,” said Pinson, who served as director for 18 years. Today, the center has performed more than 6,500 transplants across all specialties.

 

Building a Legacy

Pinson was named chairman of the Medical Board in 1997 and served as Vanderbilt Hospital’s chief of staff until 2004. From 2004 to 2009 he was associate vice chancellor for Clinical Affairs and chief medical officer. As CEO and deputy vice chancellor for Health Affairs, he now oversees 1,500 academic physicians, four hospitals, 100 outpatient clinics, 48,000 surgical operations yearly and an annual budget in excess of $2.5 billion. The current chairman of the Nashville American Heart Association, Pinson has served on the Board of Directors of the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), Nashville Area Health Care Council, Tennessee Hospital Association and many other local and national healthcare organizations.

“There are a lot of milestones to point to,” Pinson said of his career to date. “The most important thing is the opportunity I’ve had to care for people and solve their problems. There’s no greater calling in life than helping people when they’re in serious trouble with their health.”

 

Music and Medicine

Despite his career success, Pinson isn’t all business. He’s also the lead drummer for Soul Incision, a rock cover band comprised of physicians, nurses and other Vanderbilt University staff. An eclectic bunch with a soulful sound, the nine-member team tours coast-to-coast, rocking out and raising money for Vanderbilt’s Hospitality House.

Those interests merged once again in March, when Pinson was one of five honorees recognized during the star-studded T.J. Martell Honors Gala. Damon and musician and philanthropist Charlie Daniels presented Pinson with the organization’s Lifetime Medical Achievement Award.

“The award was a wonderful honor, as the marriage between music and medicine is a sweet spot for me,” Pinson said.

 

On a Mission

Pinson is grateful for the ‘lifetime’ recognition award but says his career is far from over. Next on his list? Improving accessibility and affordability of healthcare throughout Middle Tennessee.

“We’ve got to figure out how to care for people more efficiently and less expensively,” Pinson said.

In 2009, Vanderbilt Health opened a second campus at Nashville’s One Hundred Oaks Mall, a project Pinson cites as a successful example of reaching more people at a lower cost.

“The idea behind One Hundred Oaks was to take a piece of distressed property and provide services less expensively than building a clinic from scratch,” Pinson said. “We need to be doing more of those things where we figure out cost effective ways to provide healthcare.”

Another ‘win’ for Pinson is the recent affiliation between VUMC and community-owned hospitals, creating a not-for-profit network connected by electronic medical records and joint programs.

“I want a tightly integrated arrangement where patients don’t get dropped between the cracks with hospitalization and homecare,” Pinson said. “With the economy the way it is, those populations of patients need us right now.”

The affiliation currently includes Maury Regional Medical Center, Williamson Medical Center and Northcrest Medical Center. Pinson hopes to build a 20-hospital network reaching Tennessee’s northern and southernmost borders and expanding halfway to the state’s eastern and western edges.

“Not-for-profit networks are effective because the communities that own those hospitals have put their hearts and souls into them and are proud of them,” Pinson said. “The best model is to let hospitals run themselves but to get integrated clinically into a network. Getting them together helps us do a better job of caring for patients … and do it less expensively.”