Pediatrician picked as new CEO of UNC Health Care, dean of UNC School of Medicine

UNC President Margaret Spellings, left, congratulates Dr. A. Wesley Burks after he was named CEO of UNC Health Care, Dean of the UNC School of Medicine, and Vice Chancellor for Medical Affairs at UNC-Chapel Hill Friday, Dec. 14, 2018.
UNC President Margaret Spellings, left, congratulates Dr. A. Wesley Burks after he was named CEO of UNC Health Care, Dean of the UNC School of Medicine, and Vice Chancellor for Medical Affairs at UNC-Chapel Hill Friday, Dec. 14, 2018.

UNC Health Care, the $5-billion Chapel Hill-based organization with 30,000 employees, named a new CEO for the 13-hospital system Friday.

A. Wesley Burks, 64, currently executive dean of the UNC School of Medicine and a pediatrician who specializes in childhood food allergies, will also be dean of UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine.

Burks, who is developing the world’s first treatment for severe peanut allergies, will replace William Roper, 70, who has held both positions since 2004 and is recognized as one of the nation’s most prominent health care executives. The News & Observer previously reported that Burks was the leading candidate.

Burks was unanimously picked by the UNC System Board of Governors, which oversees the 17-campus university system. After the Board of Governors vote, Burks told reporters he will step back from the day-to-day work on allergy research to focus on his new role, which will involve setting the course for the health care system with doctors and operations from the mountains in western North Carolina to the eastern parts of the state.

“In this season of my life what I’d like to do is serve and lead this institution,” Burks said to journalists.

Burks was short on specifics about his vision and strategy, saying he will need to hear from various “stakeholders,” as well as financial donors, in the coming months. He noted that significant decisions on how to invest UNC funds on medical research and on health care services will be made in the spring, and he repeated several times that the organization must stay “true to its mission” of helping the people of North Carolina.

One of the biggest challenges facing UNC Health Care is navigating the national shift from old-fashioned medicine, where doctors were paid for the services they provided but were otherwise not involved in their patients’ lives, to a comprehensive approach to health care, called “population management,” where doctors and other providers work closely with patients to prevent health problems, from developing and worsening, and to keep down the costs that result from not treating patients until they are seriously ill.

“We have to work across our system to take care of patients, to be more interconnected,” Burks said. “So that’s what we’re trying to figure out the best way to do.”

Burks was noncommittal about whether UNC Health Care plans to look for opportunities for mergers and acquisitions, which is largely how the hospital system has expanded in recent years. Last year, Roper engaged in negotiations with Atrium Health in Charlotte for a partnership that would have created one of the largest hospital chains in the country, with 90,000 employees and about 50 hospitals, but those talks broke down earlier this year when the two organizations couldn’t come to an agreement on how power would be shared.

Burks was recommended to the Board of Governors by system president Margaret Spellings, who plans to step down Jan. 15. Roper will be the interim president. Spellings selected Burks from a list of two finalists given to her by the the board of UNC Health Care and by the UNC Board of Trustees. The name of the other finalist was not disclosed.

Burks said he interviewed with Spellings for about an hour earlier this month, and she outlined her expectations and her understanding of the UNC Health Care system’s needs.

Tom Fetzer, a member of the Board of Governors, said after the vote that the selection process for Roper’s replacement was thorough and competitive. Another member of the Board of Governors, Bob Rucho, said Burks convinced system leaders that he was the strongest candidate.

According to UNC’s website, Burks assists Roper in “providing overall academic leadership for the School of Medicine and the UNC Health Care System.” Both Roper and Burks are pediatricians by training; Roper joined the system in 1997 and Burks joined in 2011, after serving as chair of the Department of Pediatrics and the Physician in Chief of the North Carolina Children’s Hospital.

For the past three decades, Burks has researched children’s food allergies, focusing on peanut allergies. Just last month the New England Journal of Medicine published a paper by a research team, which was lead by Burks, describing successful results for an experimental treatment that builds up children’s resistance to peanuts by gradual exposure to peanut protein. The Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve the treatment this year and the medication is expected to be available to patients next year.

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John Murawski covers health care and environmental issues and has won numerous awards from the N.C. Press Association for his news coverage as well as his book reviews. He has previously worked as a journalist in South Florida, the Philadelphia area and Washington, D.C. He attended Virginia Commonwealth University and Indiana University, and has taken classes at Veracruz University (in Mexico) and the Jagiellonian University (in Poland). He can be reached at or 919-829-8932.