EDEN — Hours after UNC Rockingham Health Care announced the resignation of CEO Dana M. Weston, UNC’s interim chancellor and medical school administrators visited on Friday as part of a statewide tour to tout rural health initiatives.

Weston, 37, cited personal reasons for her departure, according to Myla Barnhardt, the hospital's director of marketing and public relations.

Hospital officials named Chief Financial Officer Tonya Brown interim chief operating officer on Friday and said they will immediately begin a national search for a permanent top administrator.

Tapped to lead the former Morehead Memorial Hospital in late 2015, Weston headed the rural hospital’s transition to the UNC Health Care system in 2018. The move came after Morehead filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and UNC Health Care's early 2018 purchase of the facility.

Neither UNC Interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz or hospital administrators discussed Weston's departure during a hospital press conference on Friday. They instead focused on bolstering rural health care in Rockingham County. 

" ... Across the state there are many struggling rural hospitals," Brown said. "We hope what you learn here today will help you be a voice for millions of North Carolinians who depend on health care in their rural community."

Dr. Wesley Burks, dean of the UNC Medical School and CEO of UNC Health Care, helped lead the meeting, part of a bus tour of the state's rural areas by university administrators from various disciplines. 

Rockingham County is among the state's 70 rural counties. And North Carolina is second only to Texas for the largest number of people living in rural communities where health care options are often scarce.

In an effort to attract doctors to rural practice and family medicine, UNC has spearheaded programs to recruit and prepare students from Rockingham County to become such providers, Burks said.

Through the Primary Care Rural Advancement Program, UNC recruits local youths from high schools and Rockingham Community College. A recent recruiting session saw 130 students show up at RCC to express interest in a health care career.

"So there is a real appetite for that student engagement,'' said the medical school's Dr. Cristy Page, explaining that statistics show students who are provided opportunities to practice in their home communities tend to stay.

"This is personal to me in that I am a North Carolinian through and through,'' Page said. "Somewhere along the way the commitment to make a difference in rural and underserved areas of our state has become woven into who I am."

Page further outlined UNC Medical School's FIRST program, designed for students who want to pursue family medicine in an accelerated three-year program. Designed to minimize student debt, the program also aims to help family medicine physicians connect with and commit to rural communities, Page said. Participants pledge to practice at least three years in rural N.C. communities after graduation.

Caleb Smith, a medical student from the rural Sandy Ridge community in neighboring Stokes County, said the health care program gave him a chance to reflect on the need he witnessed in his childhood.

"I remember driving (grandparents) an hour to a doctor's appointment, or my grandfather having to ride 45 minutes in an ambulance after he had a heart attack,'' Smith said. "I thought about what an amazing calling it would be to go back and serve a community just like the one I grew up in.''

After the press conference, several administrators chatted quietly about Weston's exit. Considered a standout leader throughout Rockingham County and the health care industry across the Southeast, Weston won several awards during her tenure in Eden.

Named one of Triad Business Journal’s most admired CEOs of 2019, Weston was selected by the National Association of Health Service Executives as Healthcare Executive of the Year in 2018.

Before taking the helm at Morehead, Weston spent nearly eight years working for Novant Health Shared Services in various administrative roles. She was also the director of operations for Adept Health, a consultancy firm offshoot of Novant.

A native of St. Louis, the Emory University graduate received her master’s degree in health care administration from UNC-Chapel Hill.

In July, Weston told Business North Carolina that UNC Rockingham was still in the integration phase with UNC Health Care.

“Simply being acquired by a large health system does not mean you are safe and out of the woods. So keeping UNC Rockingham off the list of hospital closures remains my priority,” Weston told the magazine’s Stephen McCollum. “If you had asked me what’s next five years ago, I wouldn’t have said CEO and I wouldn’t have said CEO of a struggling rural hospital. I feel like I was brought here for a reason, a purpose, and while we’re closer to that being achieved, we’re not there yet. The goal remains the same: to figure out what model for UNC Rockingham is sustainable.”

Following the news of Weston’s resignation, Eden Mayor Neville Hall said Weston had always been a vocal supporter of Eden in her ventures across the state.

“She has embraced being a member of the community as long as she’s been here and the community has definitely embraced her as a resident,” said Hall. “We are proud of the work she did with the hospital and with her involvement in other community activities.”

Weston is chairman of Eden’s strategic planning committee and also served on the local United Way board.

Weston was appointed to Cardinal Innovation Healthcare’s board of directors in 2018.

She was chosen after the board’s 2018 shakeup and joined shortly after Rockingham County Commissioner and current Cardinal board member Keith Duncan was appointed.

The two are the only Rockingham County residents ever appointed to the managed care organization, which administrates Medicaid of North Carolina.

In a statement, Cardinal, which presides over 20 N.C. counties, said Weston is leaving the area, as well as her hospital post.

“She no longer fulfills the (board’s) statutory requirement of a hospital administrator and will be leaving Cardinal’s Board of Directors,” said the statement. “We thank Dana for her service and wish her well.”

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Joe Dexter is a staff writer for RockinghamNow. He can be reached at 336-349-4331 ext. 6139 or @JoeDexter_RCN on Twitter.

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