Regional Medical Director Spotlight:
Paul Thomas Brizendine, MD, FACEP
ED Staffing and Management Pioneer Brings Energy and Insight to NES Health
By Thomas C. Zguris, M.D., MBA, FACEP
President & CEO
For most physicians, residency follows a somewhat predictable path: three to five years followed by licensing and board certification, and then private practice or a staff role.
But for NES Health Regional Medical Director Dr. Paul Thomas (“Tom”) Brizendine, things did not go quite as planned. While doing his residency in Wichita, Kansas in 1968 – the thick of the Vietnam War – Brizendine was called to active duty by the U.S. Air Force. This two-year stint included working as a general surgeon alongside Vietnamese physicians at a small provincial hospital just north of Saigon. “In terms of a learning experience, it was the best professional year of my life,” he says. “I gained a tremendous amount of confidence.”
After the war, Brizendine settled into private surgery practice in rural eastern Kentucky, which at the time had two small, aging hospitals with no surgical services. When a larger, modern facility was built in Louisa in 1974, Brizendine seemed like a natural choice to run its ED. He had already worked weekend shifts in the ED while at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, and felt drawn to the field.
“I was the only surgeon out of eight or ten actively practicing physicians,” Dr. Brizendine says. “And frankly, no one else wanted to do it! Plus, emergency medicine fit my personality and style of practice. I loved the immediacy of it; the need to be fast and accurate with your decision-making.”
As Medical Director of the ED at what is now Three Rivers Medical Center, Brizendine had a heavy hand in recruiting physicians. The field of emergency medicine was becoming a specialty in its own right by the mid-1970s, but was still in its infancy. It didn’t take long for Brizendine to realize that area hospitals had a genuine need for emergency staffing and management guidance – a realization that led him to create his own company, Whitaker Emergency Services.
“Tom began with one hospital contract, then grew that to two or three, and then suddenly we had 15 hospital contracts in a four-state area,” explains Frank Poschinger, who was Whitaker Emergency Services’ business manager and COO. ”It was really the birth of the ED contract management field; no one else was doing it at the time. Tom has always been full of ideas and energy; he inspired me to leave my career and become an entrepreneur myself.”
The fact that he was already wearing multiple hats did not dampen Brizendine’s entrepreneurial spirit. Poschinger recalls driving home with the doctor one afternoon after a meeting in Louisville. “I was reading an American Medical Association journal and saw an ad for the first free-standing emergency center in the U.S. So I turned to Tom and said, ‘You know what? We’re going to set up our own.’ And he was immediately on board.”
Within one year, the two men had established the first “immediate care center” in suburban Louisville with the help of investor-partners. Four more centers followed over a two-year period, until Brizendine decided to shift his focus back to his ED staffing and management company.
By 1990, Whitaker Emergency Services had reached a total of 22 contracts, garnering the interest of NES Health founder Dr. Allan Rappaport. Brizendine sensed a synergistic match, “so we got engaged and got married.” Whitaker Emergency Services joined NES in 1992 to become Whitaker National, a wholly owned subsidiary. Whitaker had its own embedded billing company that today is known as ProBill, NES Health’s coding and billing division. After the acquisition, Brizendine remained with NES Health as a site medical director for most of his contracts and became Regional Medical Director for the central, western, and southern regions.
Brizendine has since narrowed his territory and now oversees smaller clients in Kentucky and West Virginia, working with hospital administrators on staffing issues and providing seasoned guidance to NES Health physicians. He also collaborates closely with the NES leadership team on the company’s business development.
“Tom has a long history with us and is a great ambassador for the company,” says Dr. Tom Zguris, current President and CEO of NES Health. “He has a real command of the business and clinical issues we face on a daily basis, which makes him a key part of our clinical leadership team. Beyond that, Tom is just a really great guy – genuine, caring, and compassionate. I think the world of him and so do our hospital clients, who literally hug him when he visits. He has truly made an impact.”
Adds fellow Regional Medical Director, Dr. Steven Wexler: “‘Briz’ is what we call a ‘senior statesman’ at NES. He brings calm maturity to the organization and his great personality and sense of humor make working with him enjoyable. In the last couple of years, Briz has taken a lead role in analyzing deficiencies in medical coding and documentation. He has really helped our physicians and medical directors improve in this area from both a medical-legal and financial perspective.”
After a 40-plus-year career, Brizendine is slowing down a bit. His wife, four children, and seven grandchildren – not to mention the occasional golf game – provide plenty of incentive to spend time away from the ED.
But retirement is not in his sights just yet. In addition to working with NES Health, Brizendine is still an active ED physician at a small hospital in western Missouri, where his son also practices. And July marks Brizendine’s 40th year as Medical Director for Three Rivers Medical Center.
“I don’t know what I’d do if I weren’t working,” he admits. “Emergency medicine is what motivates me and gets me going each day. As long as I’m healthy and having a good time, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing.”