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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

McCall’s 29-year career mirrored the rise of UNC Health Care

Karen McCall

Karen McCall went to work for UNC Hospitals in 1988 after her husband started working on his doctorate in economics at Carolina.

She was hired on as budget officer for UNC Hospitals, a position about which she was uncertain, considering she knew so little about state accounting.

She had majored in economics, then earned a master’s in business administration before going to work as a management engineer in hospitals in Georgia and Alabama. In a hospital environment, McCall explained, management engineering is about solving operational problems and improving levels of quality, service and productivity.

That was the work she knew she could do, which is why she seized the chance to return to it when a management engineering position opened in 1990. Her first big assignment was to help open the UNC Ambulatory Care Center for outpatient care. It would also be her last in that position.

“I found out that patients were calling clerks to find out where they should go and which doctor they should see,” McCall said in an interview in her fourth-floor office in Bondurant Hall the day before she retired on Dec. 1, after nearly 30 years at UNC Hospitals.

“The basic point of it was we needed a system to help patients find the right place to come to UNC and suggested the idea of having nurses answer the phone when patients called in.”

Talking herself into a new job

The suggestion led to the creation of UNC HealthLink Nurse Advice Line; and for McCall, to an immediate job offer as the marketing director – another job she took with little knowledge of how to do it.

“I wasn’t raised in journalism or marketing, but I knew how to make systems work and the way they described the job initially was to help patients access care – and I knew how to do that,” McCall said.

When she took the marketing position, she said, neither a marketing nor communications department existed. An Institutional Relations department oversaw that type of work that those departments would have handled.

“We built it from scratch,” McCall said of the burgeoning marketing organization she helped build, run and lead over the next 28 years.

“When I came here in 1988, we were one hospital and now we are basically 12 hospitals and have the prospect of becoming the largest public health care system in the country,” McCall said.

UNC Hospitals eventually turned into UNC Health Care, an elaborate network of hospitals, research, education entities, practices and employees that span the state. That growth took a major jump in 2000 when Rex Healthcare joined UNC Health Care, and continued this year with the prospect of partnering with Charlotte-based Carolinas Health Care.

 A stellar career

McCall understood her department had to keep growing to keep pace with the burgeoning needs of the hospital – and so did she.

As marketing director, McCall led the creation of UNC Hospitals’ first marketing programs and was instrumental in the growth and development of the Carolina Consultation Center. Her teams incorporated patients into their marketing efforts and partnered with nursing to create the patient experience known today as “Carolina Care.”

She was promoted to vice president of public affairs and marketing in 2001 and led the teams that developed and executed marketing plans for the opening of the N.C. Women’s and Children’s hospitals, the N.C. Cancer Hospital and the Hillsborough campus.

Since 2013, McCall has served as chief communications and marketing officer, leading a communications and marketing organization that included UNC School of Medicine, UNC Hospitals, UNC Faculty Physicians, UNC Rex Healthcare, UNC Physicians Network, High Point Regional, Chatham Hospital, Caldwell Memorial, Pardee Hospital, Johnston Health and Nash Health Care.

“We are a city and everything that can happen in a small city happens here and so you need to be prepared,” McCall said.

Averting a crisis

Perhaps the best example of that, she said, was what is remembered as “the SARS scare” that took place in summer of 2003 after an advisory was issued that an employee in the Giles Horney Building was suspected of having Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.

There was real fear that Carolina could become the epicenter of a national epidemic, McCall said. Instead, it became the model of how to respond to and avert one.

McCall looks back on the incident as a shining example of cooperation between the University and the hospital system. And throughout the crisis, she said, they followed the principle she adhered to throughout her career, which was getting the right information to the right people at the right time.

As for why now is the right time to retire, McCall said she has followed the advice of friends who recommended she not wait too long to retire if she wanted to travel and do other things.

She and her husband already know how they will be spending much of their time. “We bike,” McCall said. The couple have already completed bike tours along the Main River in Germany and in Natchez Trace Parkway that runs through Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee and Katy Trail State Park in Missouri.

McCall said she spent the last several weeks on the job thanking the 150 people who make up her team, from the people in the call center to interpreters to communication specialists.

“What has been so great about being in communications and marketing is that we get to play a small part in what happens and to amplify the great work that our researchers and physicians and staff do here every day,” McCall said. “It has been a privilege telling their story.”