Ijeoma Akunyili: History Maker in Healthcare Leadership

Dr Ijeoma Akunyili

History was made in early January 2023, when the Jersey City Medical Centre, a part of the RWJBarnabas Health facility in New Jersey, United States, appointed Dr Ijeoma Akunyili as its new chief medical officer (CMO). She thus became the first black person to assume the position in the 141-year-old history of the prestigious establishment.

As should be expected, the unprecedented exploit generated massive attention and accolades in the United States, Nigeria and many parts of Africa. For Nigeria, in particular, the media were awash with the news – not just because she is a Nigerian but because she is the daughter of no other person than the late Professor Dora Akunyili, the legendary former director general of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC).

What most analysts and well-wishers were not aware of, however, is the spectacular and almost unbelievable manner in which the younger Akunyili achieved the extraordinary feat. She was a “latecomer” to the medical profession. In fact, she never actually intended to be  a medical practitioner, much less becoming so distinguished in the practice as to use it to positively alter the course of history.

Having been born by parents who were scientists and health professionals, Akunyili had deliberately resolved to follow an opposite trajectory. According to her, “Growing up in Nigeria, my dad was a doctor and ran a small emergency department for many years. I kind of rebelled as a college kid and as a teenager, and I did not want to be a doctor.” Being thus determined, she enrolled for a degree programme in Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Following her graduation summa cum laude (with the highest distinction), she proceeded to Harvard University for a master’s degree in Public Administration and International Development.  Thereafter, she secured employment as a junior professional associate at the World Bank.

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Turning point

At the World Bank, Akunyili helped in formulating policies on health and economy for the world’s poorest countries. However, while  she seemed to have   achieved her  initial objective of avoiding a career in the medical profession, her few years at the global financial institution revealed otherwise.  In her words, “Somewhere in my first two years at the World Bank, I realised I wanted to make more of a difference and I missed having a hands-on approach to people. While I tried to solve those big world problems at the bank, I just wanted to help one person at a time.”

Akunyili eventually yielded to the call of destiny, as she realised that her passion for helping people, particularly the disadvantaged, could be better fulfilled through the medical profession. She enrolled for a medical degree programme at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, where she graduated in 2009. She did her residency in Emergency Medicine at the McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. And from then on, she has not only enjoyed a meteoric progression in her career growth but also found tremendous fulfilment in transforming people’s lives through health and wellness.

She once declared, “I love everything about practising emergency medicine. I love the people, I love the stories, I like the sounds, the chaos, the adrenaline, the constant union of operations and medicine and not knowing what’s going to come next. I like taking care of people in their most vulnerable states. I love physiology and science, and to listen to people’s stories, so there’s no greater privilege than to be an emergency medicine physician. I wake up every day thinking I’m the luckiest person in the world.”

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Buildup to eminence

Before her present appointment, Akunyili had served as the head of Emergency Medicine at Waterbury Hospital, a Level II trauma teaching hospital, in Connecticut. There, she was the change agent who led a dynamic team in dramatically reducing the lengths of stay, improving overall performance across multiple patient-centred metrics and increasing physician staffing.

Thereafter, she served as the regional medical director for TeamHealth, Northeast Group, where she had strategic, operational, and clinical oversight of nearly 20 emergency departments, critical care, and hospitalist service lines in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania.  She led an unprecedented fourfold expansion of service lines with a specific focus on medical services and access to care for underserved populations.

It was in recognition of her rare passion and expertise as an emergency medicine specialist and health administrator that the management of RWJBarnabas Health appointed her as the CMO of Jersey City Medical Centre, with effect from 2 January. Revealing why Akunyili was chosen for the exalted position, Dr Andy Anderson, executive vice president and chief medical and quality officer for RWJBarnabas Health, said, “RWJBarnabas Health is proud to add Dr Akunyili to its executive clinical leadership team. Her experience managing multispecialty physician groups in integrated health care systems will help support Jersey City Medical Centre in providing comprehensive health care throughout the community. She will be a tremendous asset to our team.”

Corroborating this, Dr Michael Prilutsky, CEO and president of the medical centre, said, “Dr Akunyili has a wealth of experience and knowledge, and, as our chief medical officer, we look forward to creating a world-class experience for every patient at Jersey City Medical Centre. I am confident that Hudson County will benefit in a great way from her leadership, and that her presence will have tremendous impact.”

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In addition to her executive experience, Dr Akunyili has vast leadership and advocacy experience, and is currently serving as the President of the Connecticut College of Emergency Physicians (CCEP). Prior, she served for several years on the board of directors of Texas and Connecticut Colleges of Emergency Physicians.  She was an Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine at Baylor School of Medicine Houston, TX, and she is currently a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at Yale University.

Awards and recognitions

In addition to her current epochal appointment, Akunyili has received numerous honours and recognitions for her exceptional commitment to provision of high-quality care to patients, as well as outstanding leadership to the various clinical teams she has headed. She was awarded the 2019 Medical Director of the Year Award for the impressive turnaround of the Waterbury Hospital Emergency Department.

Earlier, in 2016, FEMINEM (Females Working In Emergency Medicine) honoured her with the 2016 AAWEP Rising Star Award. On why she was given the award, the association said: “Dr. Akunyili has demonstrated a clear commitment to the advancement of our speciality and the professional development of women.  She is truly a rising star.” Before then, at the completion of her residency programme, she was recognised with the Michael Wainstock Outstanding Resident Award.


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