Dr. Jerome Williams Jr. has spent a lifetime repairing hearts — and the community conditions that can cause them to fail in the first place.
In sixth grade, he confidently announced that he intended to parlay his love of science into a career as an interventional cardiologist. In medical school, he connected the wheezing kids he was repeatedly seeing at a New York City hospital with leading-edge research that linked cockroach debris to asthma. "I kept it to myself, but I thought why the heck don't we just deal with the cockroaches in the tenements and not just keep treating kids in the emergency room with asthma attacks?" Williams recalled.
About Jerome Williams Jr. Senior vice president consumer engagement, Novant Health
Education: City College of New York Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education, Bachelor of Science
- New York University School of Medicine, M.D.
- Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, residency
- Yale University School of Medicine/Yale New Haven Hospital, postdoctoral fellowship
- Wake Forest University School of Business, MBA
Of note: Founding member of the Carolinas Association for Community Health Equity (CACHE)
Personal: Wife, Dr. Adelle Anthony-Williams, is an anesthesiologist. They have two sons, Christien and Julian.
Moonlighting later at a substance abuse treatment center during his cardiology fellowship at Yale University, he noticed something else — his patients all lived in communities where resources and opportunity were scarce and "profound hopelessness" was abundant.
"Looking back on my journey," the 58-year-old said, "I have had a dual career path: One was becoming an interventional cardiologist and treating patients one by one, but also I had this interest in improving the health of communities that look like me — the black and brown communities where there were health inequities and health disparities."
His quest to address those inequities on a larger scale would lead Williams to Wake Forest University and an MBA in 2016 and then to his current mission as senior vice president of consumer engagement for Novant Health. In that role, he marshals health care, community and faith organizations to address what are known as "social determinants of health."
That's the complex web of social and economic conditions that have a major impact on an individual's health, well-being and quality of life. They include safe housing and neighborhoods, ready access to medical care, clean water and healthy food — and being able to afford them. People without nearby stores selling nutritious food, for example, are at higher risk for obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Their life expectancy is also shorter. People of color are often hardest hit.
"There are barriers that go beyond just getting doctors to see patients for free — it's not as simple as you think," said Dr. James Roberts, who has worked with Williams off and on since they were young doctors in New York. He admires Williams' knack for bringing teams together to identify problems and find solutions.
"Jerome has a unique skill in that when he listens, he actually hears things that other people don't hear," said Roberts, clinical physician executive at the Novant Heart & Vascular Institute in Charlotte. "He'll sort of wait for the conversation to take its course, then circle back to one or two things that were brought up and say, 'I heard you say such and so. That doesn't sound like something we're doing much about. What can we do to intervene?' "
Addressing the root causes of poor health
Williams' path started in Brooklyn and Queens, New York, where he was brought up with what he describes as an "immigrant mentality." For his father, a native of Costa Rica, and his mother, who had moved north from the small town of Ahoskie, North Carolina, that meant education was top of mind.
"You may not be able to control a lot of the environment as it relates to discrimination and racism around you, but you're able to control how educated one can be," Williams said. "They felt that was the best way to control your destiny."
That led Williams to the prestigious Sophie Davis Biomedical Education Program at the City College of New York in 1982. Its seven-year Bachelor of Science/M.D. program has community health and social medicine at its heart. Williams recalled that one professor — Dr. H. Jack Geiger, co-founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility — would have an enduring influence.
"I remember Dr. Geiger telling the story where he set up this clinic in rural Mississippi and then realized it made zero sense to have people come to this clinic from rural Mississippi, provide a diagnosis, write a prescription and send them back to the community where they didn't have food or appropriate sanitation or appropriate drinking water," Williams recalled. "So what he did was take his team into communities. They built sanitation levees and partnered with the African American physicians in those communities to improve the water source, develop a farming cooperative and it really changed the health of those communities."
See a doctor before you need a doctor.
That lit a fire in Williams that intensified in 1996 when he joined a large private practice in Charlotte, Mid Carolina Cardiology, and began treating patients with serious heart disease. Amid the stenting and angiograms, something tugged at Williams' heart. "I found myself being drawn back to communities of color, trying to collaborate with nonprofit organizations and faith organizations to improve the health of individuals," he said.
That led Williams and a colleague, Dr. Yele Aluko, in collaboration with community partners to launch the nonprofit Carolinas Association for Community Health Equity - CACHE, in 2005. It was there that he would forge the deep community ties that are key to his current work.
Emergency food packs, cardiac care at home
By 2014, Williams had checked all the boxes on his career list — Columbia University internship, cardiology fellowship at Yale, and chief and chairman of cardiology at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center. It was time for a new challenge: "The natural progression would have been chief medical officer or president of our medical group here," he said, "But I said, 'Let me go to business school and it will hopefully crystallize whatever it is that this next step would be.' I wasn't running away from cardiology, but I knew there was a bigger platform to create a greater impact on the communities experiencing health disparities."
That something is Williams' work today leading corporate social responsibility, community engagement
"Health disparities exist across the spectrum, not only with communities of color but also with the elderly, LGBTQ communities — even with white men, who have a high rate of depression and suicide," Williams said.
Many of the disparities can be attributed to inequitable distribution of resources in society, for example food scarcity and financial insecurity.
"Patients may be working two or three jobs and they may miss their appointment largely because they don't have transportation to get there. Or the time," Roberts said. "And when they finally do get there, we can give them free medicines and say, ‘We want you to go home and eat a well-balanced diet,’ but that's a difficult thing if you don't have the money to buy veggies and so on."
Those issues are real in some communities Novant Health serves, including Charlotte's "crescent" neighborhoods, where 1 in 4 people live in poverty. That's why, for example, Williams led a push to develop emergency food packs for individuals screening positive for food insecurity.
As part of visits to Novant Health Clinics, including Novant Health Michael Jordan Family Medical Clinics, patients are assessed for food insecurity — and a food "prescription" can be filled if needed. Patients get a four-day supply of nutritious food and are referred to their nearest food pantry for longer-term aid. That's an essential way to target an underlying cause of chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity or high blood pressure, said Williams, who continues to see patients one day a week.
The clinics are strategically located to give people easy access to everything from annual checkups and immunizations to treatment of minor injuries and management of chronic disease.
"Folks would like to go to a doctor but if there's no facility in your neighborhood and you have to take two or three buses to get to one, that's a barrier," Williams said. "These are all non-biologic, non-genetic factors that have a profound effect on one's health. That's really the focus of a lot of what I do now."
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, when drive-up clinics were providing testing and immunization, Williams teamed up with Mecklenburg County and community groups to make the same services available to people without cars. The pop-up clinics were held at neighborhood churches and schools — trusted institutions at the heart of communities where distrust often runs high. He's always looking at ways to get care where it's needed — for example, investigating the possibility of deploying a Wi-Fi-equipped mobile unit so folks without internet access could participate in tele-health appointments.
Recently, Williams helped Roberts secure a $55,000 grant that had been in jeopardy. It will eventually allow some heart patients with insurmountable transportation and time barriers to complete cardiac rehabilitation at home. The program will loan participants iPads for 12 weeks, allowing doctors to monitor their vital signs and track their exercise remotely.
As Williams sees it, it's all a matter of connecting the dots — assembling high-performing teams, being alert to needs and then taking action. And that's the role he's spent a lifetime preparing for.
"There's not going to be one person, one entity, one institution nor one sector that solves these problems — we have to come together," he said.
When a doctor becomes a health care leader
While most U.S. medical schools don't teach management skills, many doctors wind up in executive roles. For Dr. Jerome Williams Jr., the progression was natural, building on what he learned from caring for one patient at a time.
"It's really a transition from taking care of an individual behind an exam room door to looking at communities and looking at populations," he said.
Here are some of Williams’ key takeaways for others considering a shift from clinical care to leadership:
You can't make major changes on your own. "You have to be able to collaborate and partner with different leaders across different silos in order to create greater impact."
Your partners rely on you. "You have to really support the people that you work with — whether it be clinical folks, front-line folks — the health and well-being of our workforce is vital to 'delivering remarkable.' I have a much greater focus now on ensuring that all of our team members are healthy, both physically and mentally, and that we build in resilience because health care is challenging."