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Growing Impact While Giving Back
Dr. Herman B. Gray, Jr. reflects on his career in medicine, public health and health care administration – and how they must intersect moving forward.
For Dr. Herman B. Gray Jr., health care is a way of life.
“I work in pediatrics and my wife’s a social worker – health care is a big part of who we are,” he said. “Our communities, our circles of friends – our two daughters were exposed to lots of different opportunities.
“And it’s exposure that results in the dream – you have to first know it exists.”
Students also need the right support to succeed, he added. In memory of his parents, Dr. Herman B. Gray Sr. and Carrie Gray, Dr. Gray and his wife Shirley established National Medical Fellowship’s $5,000 Gray Family Scholarship program in 2019 for African American students enrolled at Wayne State University School of Medicine, where Dr. Gray chairs the department of pediatrics.
Dr. Gray began his undergraduate studies at University of Michigan during the height of anti-Vietnam war and civil rights-related activity – including the availability of affirmative action for Black and brown students.
“There were students who felt entitled to tell me with some regularity that the only reason I was there was because of affirmative action, even though we’d met the same admissions criteria,” he said.
Dr. Gray was also told by his pre-medical counselor that he should consider alternate career paths given they did not believe he’d be accepted to medical school.
“The environment grew more unwelcoming,” he said.
Dr. Gray returned home to Detroit to continue his pre-medical studies while surrounding himself with more positively affirming messages from his family:
“My mother graduated high school and ran her own business, and when she asked if I was going to let someone else determine my future, that was my push to transfer until I returned to University of Michigan for medical school.”
Upon graduating, Dr. Gray completed his residency at Detroit Medical Center’s (DMC) Children’s Hospital of Michigan and spent more than a decade as a private practice pediatrician.
“I loved watching little ones grow into healthy teenagers, and watching new parents become more confident,” he said.
But Dr. Gray’s sense of wanting to do more amid growing frustrations with administrative and insurance concerns eventually grew stronger:
“If I knew what my patients needed, why did I need to start calling insurance companies to get permission to prescribe certain medications?”
Dr. Gray knew he could be just as if not more impactful on the well-being of children working in health administration – but he still needed some convincing.
“A mother who worked for the Michigan Department of Community Health kept making appointments for her sons so she could see me and convince me to interview for a chief medical consultant role within Children’s Special Health Services,” he said.
Dr. Gray ultimately accepted the job, and held a number of administrative roles afterwards, including vice president and medical director of clinical affairs at Blue Care Network, and executive vice president of pediatric health services, vice president of graduate medical education, director of pediatrics residencies, and chief of staff at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan and the DMC.
In 2003, Dr. Gray also earned his MBA from the University of Tennessee.
“I was anxious being an older student, but it ended up being one of the best years of my life,” he said.
Dr. Gray was offered the chief operations officer role at Children’s Hospital of Michigan just a few weeks before graduating. He would also become the first African American to serve as president and CEO of the hospital before continuing on his career as president and CEO of United Way for Southeastern Michigan.
Dr. Gray said the health care environment is even more complex now.
“Hospitals and private practices have expanded to large, for-profit or non-profit systems and gobbled up all the community hospitals,” he said. “That complexity doesn’t necessarily serve patients well. When the money has to pass through too many hands before being spent on actual care, that’s a problem.”
On the other hand, it’s extremely difficult to reconcile growing patient and community needs with that of business, Dr. Gray added.
“It was easier to admit a malnourished or sick child with a family’s permission to the hospital for feeding in the 1980s – but today’s insurance practices, public policy, stretched resources, and even politics, makes it considerably more challenging,” he said.
It also doesn’t address the important issues of quality and access, and other challenges including transportation, housing, or paid time off to help care for ill loved ones.
When dollars drive health care decisions away from the best interests of patients, physician shortages and early retirements tend to increase, Dr. Gray said.
“Pediatricians are child advocates first and foremost, and we recognize it takes more than good clinical care to ensure a child grows up well,” he said. “The younger me would be surprised and disappointed to see that while we’ve made progress, there’s so much more progress that still needs to be made.”
Increasing diversity in the health care workforce – a possible solution to improving health outcomes of Black and brown communities in particular – is a “painfully and ineffectively slow process,” Dr. Gray said.
“We as a society and country have to figure out if this is important enough to us to overcome extraordinary political resistance to what will have to be a concerted high-level effort by many institutions or organizations. Because if you were to try to significantly increase enrollment of Black or brown students in medical school today, you’d likely be sued before you could even finish writing the admission letter – and, while we’re currently addressing our current insufficient medical career pipelines with more advanced early education programs, that’s too long of a wait if we want to improve population health now.”
Dr. Gray has become a Health Equity Ambassador for NMF to try to relay these messages to larger audiences.
“We as a community need to do better finding and helping those kids and families so they, too, can have the same opportunities as we have to succeed,” he said.