Leader has passion to solve problems, help others ‘be their best selves’

March 22, 2023
A woman with long, wavy black hair smiles as she stands on a porch outside. She's wearing a blazer and a green dress.
Jessica Johnson came to MUSC Health as the chief operations officer in July 2022. Photo by Sarah Pack

Every March, the nation celebrates National Women’s History Month to honor and celebrate the undeniable contributions women have made throughout time. Look for the stories of other exceptional women at the bottom of this report.

Growing up, Jessica Johnson always knew she would have a career helping others and working in health care.

The Brooklyn-born Tar Heel has lots of memories shadowing her mom during her school’s Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day experiences – both of Johnson’s parents had careers in health care. 

“I learned early on that a job in health care meant you got to make someone’s day a little better. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do then but knew I wanted to work in a hospital and take care of patients and hopefully make a difference in people’s lives,” said Johnson.

Fast-forward to 2013, having completed her Master of Healthcare Administration from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she soon saw her path. During her junior year of undergrad, she volunteered at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, which helped her to realize the business side of health care – beyond the direct clinical roles – that supported her strengths and interests, especially problem-solving.

“This side of health care felt more like an organic place for me to make an impact. It didn’t feel forced, and I didn’t feel stressed out about getting through the hard science courses anymore.  It was the best decision I made for my career and life path,” she said.

It wasn’t until the summer of 2014, when Johnson put her career on hold and bought a one-way ticket to Vietnam, that she discovered her true passion. She took a temporary break to travel and study specific areas of the world she was interested in and immerse herself in life and cultures. 

During that time, she connected with a grassroots health care group whose focus it was to discuss health care barriers for various Vietnamese patient groups and offer solutions. Problems with HIV/AIDS cases around the country, especially those affecting infants and children in orphanages, touched her heart. Although the country was striving to provide universal health care to residents, in reality, she found that Vietnam’s health care system was poor and almost non–existent in rural areas. 

Group of young people smiling in Vietnam. One of them is Jessica Johnson, who now works at MUSC. 
Jessica Johnson, second left, spent some time in Vietnam in 2014. She volunteered with a grassroots health care group that helped patients navigate health care barriers to receive care. Photo Provided

“I may not have been a clinician with this group, but I had the experience and interest to help them organize, schedule services, coordinate efforts to help these patient groups. It was a small part compared to the ‘labor of love’ demonstrated by these committed professionals. Honestly, that’s how I see my role today – I’m here to remove barriers for our clinicians and ensure our health care teams are able to show up to be their best selves in their jobs,” she said.

Johnson returned to America with newfound energy, direction and a purpose. She shifted her perspective to create new personal goals: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Focus on what you can control. Make it easy for people to do the right thing and remove barriers.

 With a renewed mindset, she committed to making contributions that would change health care in manageable ways. 

She worked in revenue cycle in New York City before accepting a strategic services associate operations manager position at Duke University Hospital in 2016. The opportunity was a homecoming, returning her to the Research Triangle area, while she worked closely with several of Duke Hospital’s experienced leaders.

From 2018 to 2021, she served as Duke University Hospital’s director of medical, surgical and critical care services and then as administrative director of surgery for Denver Health. She’s particularly grateful for the mentoring and guidance she received during her career.

“Rarely does a person get things done by performing high-level tasks quickly and efficiently without recognizing and bringing people along the way. There’s nothing more valuable than collaboration with others and fostering team spirit among groups to get one to the goal,” she said.

Upon arriving at MUSC Health in July of 2022 as the chief operating officer Johnson quickly saw its strengths as a statewide health care provider – especially the organization’s long-standing commitment to ensuring that communities with little to no options for health care have the ability to receive quality care. Johnson is a staunch advocate for health equity and addressing the barriers that limit access to health and wellness for all.

“A person can get the best clinical care in the world inside of a hospital but once they are discharged and go to a food desert or home with internet insecurity or a neighborhood that lacks sidewalks, parks or areas where an individual can exercise or work out – that’s a problem,” she said. “As an organization, we can do more outside of our walls. Those events pushed a lot of initiatives – engagement with community champions and others we are trying to impact. It’s a reminder that we’re more than just a hospital.”

In her role, Johnson’s looking at new opportunities, innovations and sustainable solutions to improve operations and processes.

An area that she sees as a priority is building employee resilience, well-being and self-care – especially for the clinical care teams.

“All of us at some point at work need to decompress, especially since the pandemic. Everyone has different thresholds and are on different levels in which they need to decompress, and that’s OK. We need to identify stress factors and enforce processes to help people do the ‘right thing,’ while eliminating barriers that prevent them from doing what they do best,” she said. 

Last November, Johnson was named among 21 national women health care leaders to the 2023 Carol Emmott Fellowship class by the Carol Emmott Foundation. The class is part of an elite 14-month experience designed to support and increase gender equity in health care leadership within the communities and institutions they serve. 

Looking ahead, Johnson hopes to see a health care workplace where everyone is keeping each other well. 

“It’s my goal to ensure that all of us can do our best at our jobs. I want to give people what they need to be successful in their roles and make it easy for them to do the right thing so that everyone can be their best selves,” she said.

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