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Consumers, Not Patients: An Entrepreneur's Vision For the Healthcare Audience Jesse Cureton used his skills in leadership, fundraising, partnership and engaging communication strategies to turn Novant Health into a trusted resource of information

By John Stanly

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Jesse Cureton

In March 2020, with COVID-19 spreading rapidly through the region, people began to panic, and confusion reigned. What were the rules about isolation? Where could you find masks? How could people get their loved ones tested?

Jesse Cureton, executive vice president and chief consumer officer for Novant Health, knew the public needed an expert, calming guide in the chaos – and quick, responsive help in areas of most critical need.

He used his skills in leadership, fundraising, partnership and engaging communication strategies to turn Novant Health into a trusted resource of information. Soon billboards throughout the area alerted residents to the system's 24/7 COVID hotline, a first in the region. He led his teams to host pop-up COVID-19 testing centers, especially in communities of color disproportionately affected by the pandemic. His team organized the effort to distribute nearly half a million masks when masks were hard to find.

It was an outsized effort for someone with outsized talent leading teams to accomplish the extraordinary in a hurry. But it was work that drew on Cureton's background on meeting the needs of the consumer.

Cureton, who leads marketing and communication and the organization's focus on its consumers, is well-known nationally as one of the health care industry's visionary leaders who is transforming the patient experience by moving to consumer-centric care.

As one of the nation's first chief consumer officers in healthcare, Jesse has led the way by sharing with the industry at large how Novant Health is creating a consumer-centric organization. It starts by putting the patient at the center of everything the care team does.

"Jesse has been instrumental in helping us adopt a patient-centric approach across our footprint," Novant Health President and CEO Carl Armato said. "That means when we talk to patients, whether that's through the written word or person-to-person communication, we start by addressing their needs, not first touting our expertise."

From banking to health care

An industry upended by legislative forces, squeezed margins and shifts in consumer demands: It's a landscape that sounds familiar and that's because it is – in the world of banking.

Cureton began his career as a banker, helping Bank of America navigate that industry's rapid evolution. Now he's helping lead Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based Novant Health through health care's similar transformation. As with banking, health care is facing a new consumer focus, heightened governmental presence and pricing pressures. Cureton embraces these changes as opportunities.

Cureton's leadership accelerated Novant Health's transformation from a collection of more than 350 brands into a single entity united by a single vision. As an integrated three-state network of hospitals, outpatient centers and physician clinics with more than $7 billion in revenue and 35,000 employees, Novant Health is known by a single indelible brand, which Cureton and his team have helped elevate to represent medical excellence married with deep compassion.

Cureton has overseen Remarkable You, a community wellness initiative through which hundreds of thousands of people have received potentially lifesaving screenings. Under his team's oversight, Novant Health shifted its focus to prevention and wellness – and to treating the patient as a cherished customer.

Today, Cureton is focused in part on the patient experience – because he knows that when it comes to customer loyalty, experience is everything.

"Healthcare organizations must invest in technology and data analysis tools to ensure we are reaching our patients and engaging with them in the best way throughout their care journeys. For example, because we know the website is nearly 80% of consumers' 'front door' to Novant Health, we are focused on cultivating a connected, seamless consumer journey across the website, app, call center, social media and more" Cureton has led Novant Health to create personalized engagement experiences and optimize how consumers find the care they need, including a physician matching tool that pairs patients with a physician based on personal preferences. "We also use data to drive personalized, proactive outreach to patients to support their health and well-being," he said, "like a reminder when they're due for a mammogram or a wellness visit."

Growing up in divided city

Cureton grew up in a low-income area of Charlotte, North Carolina, graduated from UNC Chapel Hill and returned to Charlotte to launch his career in financial services. Charlotte made headlines – and not the kind a city hopes for – in 2014 when a Harvard University study ranked it last out of 50 large metro areas in terms of the likelihood of someone climbing up out of poverty.

"When I was a young man growing up on the west side of Charlotte, North Carolina, it was pretty clear to me that the city I lived in was actually two cities," Cureton said. "There was mine – mostly African American, mostly poor – and then there was the other Charlotte, the one with better housing, grocery stores, schools and medical care.

"In my Charlotte, families like mine struggled to pay bills, to piece together transportation, to access health care that would enable them to thrive. I saw people get sick – and have no way to pay for treatment. I saw them struggle with untreated chronic conditions without regular care from a doctor. I didn't understand why these things were so hard for people who lived on our side of town. That's just the way it was – and I saw little hope for change."

But Cureton refuses to accept that someone's health should depend on his or her ZIP code.

"What I know now, as a leader at a regional health care system, is that health, employment, education, transportation – they're all connected," he said. "The way to help kids in poor neighborhoods, kids like I was, is to address them all. And I'm convinced that the doctor's office is one of the best places to do that. That's why our system is embracing creative solution to end health inequity. For instance, we partnered with Michael Jordan to open two Novant Health Michael Jordan Family Medical Clinics in impoverished Charlotte neighborhoods and charged them with an uncommon mission: to treat not just diseases of the body, but diseases of the pocketbook, the mind, the soul."

The clinics provide affordable – and when needed, free – full-service medical care. The clinics also have on-staff clinical social workers, who connect patients with stable housing, healthy food and behavioral health services. "Our first Michael Jordan Family Medical Clinic opened in my childhood neighborhood, on Charlotte's high-poverty west side," Cureton said. "And in its first year, more than 3,350 patients walked through the clinic's doors, including more than 450 children." Soon, thanks to another generous gift from Jordan, two more such clinics will open in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Cureton is a founding member on Charlotte's Leading on Opportunity Council, an initiative bringing community, business and education partners together to improve citizens' economic mobility by removing barriers to education, employment and health care.

Reaching out, building up

Cureton is known for fostering collaboration, transforming individuals into highly effective teams and being perhaps the most positive person in any room. From Junior Achievement of Central Carolinas, where Jesse has served on the board, to 100 Black Men, which he helped found, Cureton is known for seeking out people to mentor and opportunities to inspire.

He has a heart for young people who, as he did, come from a point of economic disadvantage. That motivation has been part of his continued service to organizations such as Bethlehem Center of Charlotte, which offers camps and enrichment programs for at-risk youth – programs Cureton attended as a child.

Cureton cares deeply about the ties that bind a community together. CEO Carl Armato shared a story that illustrates that concern.

"It was 2013, and leaders in Charlotte had just learned that a beloved community tradition of nearly seven decades had ended abruptly. The city's annual Thanksgiving Day parade, the fourth-largest in the United States, no longer had a sponsor," Armato said. "Jesse Cureton heard the news, and he came to fellow leaders at Novant Health with an urgent message: Our organization needed to save the parade."

For Cureton, the motivation was personal as well as professional. A native Charlottean, he'd performed in that parade as a drummer in the much-admired West Charlotte High School marching band. Novant Health strives to make its community healthy, and part of a healthy community is ensuring community traditions continue for future generations. Thusly, Novant Health stepped in to revive the event.

Despite heavy demands on his time, Cureton always makes space to meet with people looking for guidance for their career journey in health care – many of whom he eventually hires. Within Novant Health, Cureton makes time to mentor people, not because he was assigned to do it, but because he wants to. Outside his own organization, Jesse speaks to regional and national groups, offering wisdom and experience from the health care transformation underway at Novant Health, as well as his own thoughts on leadership.

Modern Healthcare named Jesse one of the Top 25 Minority Executives in Healthcare to Watch in 2018, and in 2017 Black Enterprise Magazine included him as one the 300 Most Powerful Executives in Corporate America. He has also received the Charlotte Mayor's Award, Order of the Crown for Civility in 2019, and the Echo Foundation 21st Annual Award for Community Leadership in 2019. Finally, in 2017, Charlotte Magazine recognized him as one of 50 Most Powerful People in Charlotte.

"(We're) building an organization that's consumer-centric. One of the things we learned in banking is banking is you have to listen to consumers because their attitudes their beliefs – they're all different," said Cureton "When (we) listen to consumers, it's our way of showing respect to them."

Cureton's work "starts every day with this notion that our consumers are important to us," he recently told an audience at Queens University in Charlotte, where he earned his MBA and serves as a trustee. "I use the term consumers, not patients, because if I use the term 'patient' – I've thought about you too late. …I want to think about you, and have you thinking about us, long before you need us."
John Stanly

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