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Healthcare

Allen Harrison’s Unusual Path to Medical City President

How the biomedical engineer found his way to leading one of the largest health systems in North Texas.
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If you asked Allen Harrison if his career would take him to the presidency of a major health system in North Texas when he first began his professional life, he might have thought you had the wrong guy. The Tulsa native had two degrees in biomedical engineering and began his journey working with children with congenital disabilities. But at the root of his expertise was a deeply held belief in the preciousness of human life, and he has leaned into opportunities to scale that belief each step along the way.

Harrison is just a few months into his role as president of Medical City Healthcare, one of parent company HCA’s largest health systems. It has 16 hospitals, four off-camps emergency rooms, 12 ambulatory surgery centers, 5,000 physicians, and 17,000 employees in North Texas. He was preceded by Erol Akdamar, who was promoted to president of HCA’s American Group region after serving as president of Medical City since 2013. Harrison arrived in Dallas via a mid-career shift into hospital administration. He was previously CEO of St. David’s North Austin Medical Center and CEO of the Methodist hospital system in San Antonio, both of which are part of HCA’s 184 hospitals nationwide.

Harrison spent the first couple decades of his career working as a biomedical engineer for patients with congenital disabilities in Washington D.C. at the National Rehabilitation Hospital and in Denver, where he focused on pediatric patients via a private company partially owned by the children’s hospital there. He worked with patients with cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and other disabilities that translated into limitations in the patients’ movement, speech, and fine motor control. During this time, he was on the front lines of patient care, watching the things he built improve others’ quality of life.

“You can see in real-time the impact of the interventions that we’re taking, and you felt like you were you were unlocking the potential that was that was stuck inside an individual who had some physical limitations that prevented them from fully expressing themselves,” he says. “It was incredibly fulfilling to step into those seasons of somebody’s life and bring solutions.”
Harrison’s team oversaw all steps in the engineering process, from evaluation and design to custom fabrication of devices or parts. His team also made adjustments and maintained the devices. Harrison had the opportunity to have an acute impact on individual patients and see his work in action, but those in hospital administration noticed his ability to see the big picture, and he was soon approached to move to management.

If you look at the resumes of many hospital CEOs, you will see healthcare administration degrees, MBAs, and residencies in hospital leadership. One may have a finance background or be focused on operations, and occasionally a physician will leave behind the white coat for the board room. Harrison admits that his route from engineer to CEO is not well-worn but sees that as an advantage. He has experience and perspective that most in the C-suite don’t.

Harrison didn’t see hospital leadership as a departure from his original calling but an expansion of his mission. “We step into these patients’ lives in moments of profound vulnerability,” he says. “The ability to impact the patients and their families and their loved ones and the work that we do every day is life-changing, life-saving, and life-giving.”

Harrison sees his role at Medical City as one focused on removing barriers for others to be able to solve the problems before them. Just as when he was working with patients with congenital disabilities, it was all about unlocking potential. To realize that potential and remove barriers, Harrison says relationships are key. “The people that you work with and the people that you work for are the focus,” he says. “Relationships are important to me, and I have the ability now to lean into relationships on multiple levels and to see that scale across a large enterprise.”

Harrison has been in hospital leadership in Texas for eleven years, so he is well aware of the challenges faced by all hospitals in terms of profitability, labor supply, and revenue threats. He said a focus for Medical City will be securing the labor pipeline by growing Galen Nursing School, of which HCA is a partial owner. The Richardson campus is open for virtual learning and will soon launch in-person classes. He says the network also makes inroads with high school students to prepare them for a healthcare career. He knows the healthcare worker shortage cannot be solved immediately, but he is optimistic about maintaining high levels of care. “We’re planting trees, but we will not be able to enjoy their shade for a few years, he says.

Harrison will look to apply the analytical skills he honed while evaluating, designing, and maintaining medical devices in his early years by using the same process to the entire health system. But he holds onto a humble approach. “My aspiration is to be a servant leader. It encapsulates the idea of showing up to work every day, asking yourself, ‘What does my team need from me today to be successful?’ and having your focus be on the needs of the people who work with you and work for you,” he says. “The focus of my leadership should be on others, not on myself.”

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Will Maddox

Will Maddox

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Will is the senior writer for D CEO magazine and the editor of D CEO Healthcare. He's written about healthcare…

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