Carolyn Stoutmeyer Wilson ’81 is in a unique place to observe the state of national health care.

As the chief operating officer for the University of Chicago Medical Center, Wilson oversees patient care, education and research. She’s also responsible for nursing, perioperative services, pharmacy, chaplaincy and pediatric services.

And, due to a historic turn of national politics, Wilson has a front-row seat to the current health care debate. First Lady Michelle Obama was the medical center’s vice president for community relations, reporting to Wilson before the elections of 2008 took then-Sen. Barack Obama into the White House.

In addition, Mrs. Obama’s chief of staff, Valerie Jarrett, was chairperson of the medical center board before the elections and other university-related professionals are now either at the White House or have close ties to Washington.

“It is phenomenal to have various White House fellowships and such strategic connections. But we’re also like other providers, in a wait-and-see mode as it pertains to health care reform, since many aspects of the plan do not take place until 2014,” she said.

Wilson believes that the University of Chicago is on the cutting edge of many health care issues, particularly in regard to urban health. The medical center is engaged in a variety of partnerships with community hospitals and doctors on Chicago’s impoverished south side neighborhoods.

“There is not enough access to health care in the neighborhoods near the university,” Wilson noted. “Since we are an academic and research center, it is far too costly to use our facilities as first-stop care centers. So we are developing networks with local providers that we hope can be replicated elsewhere.”

Her background prior to taking on her current role has prepared her well for these challenges.

After getting her RN degree through the Calvin-Blodgett nursing program, Wilson first worked as a floor nurse. Next, she was on a National Institutes of Health HIV-AIDS research team, which she followed with an oncology nursing experience.

Wilson found, however, that her interests and skills drew her more to medical operations, and she picked up an MBA degree along the way.

She became a community hospital administrator, developing expertise in medical systems management. The University of Chicago hired her 12 years ago, and her list of responsibilities has grown steadily.

“Four years ago, the university merged medical operations with the academic and research side of the organization. That’s been a great move because so many of those previous divides were artificial. We now operate in a more seamless and efficient manner,” she said.

Trained as a nurse, Wilson holds a spot close to her heart for the nursing profession.

“There are tremendous challenges in store for nursing education,” she said. “We must figure out a way to provide training in an economically achievable manner. The new health care plan relies even more on nursing, so the strength of the profession is a crucial component.”

Wilson also notes the need for changes in nursing training due to the swift rise in outpatient procedures.

“Twenty years ago, about 15 percent of all procedures were out-patient; today, that percentage is around 53 percent. So we’re behind a little bit in how we’re preparing today’s nurses. Many future nurses will be working in that kind of a setting,” she said.

“In addition, patients desire more home care,” Wilson added. “We’re known for cancer research and care, so we have much experience in this area. Our patients really want to be at home, with family. Our training, health education and drug support have to show that understanding.”

Whatever the future for health care and for nursing, Wilson is committed to making certain the human face of caring remains.

“In all of this, we have to resist becoming ‘too technician,’” Wilson concluded. “Our main value must always be to value and support the patient, to retain the special art that is the heart of the medical professions.”