How serious is Panissa Bryant Caldwell about the safety of Novant Health patients?

Consider her nickname: POLICE-a. It’s a good-natured jab she’s rightfully earned – she explains with a laugh – by going strictly by the book when it comes to compliance with the myriad regulations in American health care. (It also rhymes with her first name.) More importantly, it’s about ensuring the No. 1 issue at Novant Health: patient safety.

As director of clinical services, Caldwell works to ensure that the medical group’s 700 patient clinics and other facilities are carefully following policies, procedures and workflow — and ready for inspection at a moment’s notice. Caldwell is also profoundly committed to reducing health care disparities among minority communities in the Novant Health footprint. (More on this in just a moment.)

No one knows when The Joint Commission inspectors will drop in for a survey. Visits are usually unannounced. Surveyors with the nonprofit that accredits health care systems across the U.S. speak with team members and patients, and review medical records and quality of health care. As far as Caldwell is concerned, today could be the day for a survey.

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Surveys require clinics to comply with many accreditation standards, which measure performance on everything from recordkeeping to proper handwashing. Caldwell is there to assist inspectors with surveys at the clinics attached to Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center, Novant Health Rowan Medical Center, Novant Health Thomasville Medical Center, Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center and Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center.

Caldwell’s job: Making sure Novant Health teams are always getting it right.

Day-to-day, she motivates her team of 18 with ease and a graceful urgency, especially when the unexpected happens. Sometimes that means finding another home for vaccines during a power outage. Or dealing with a delayed supply of medical instruments. Caldwell sees it all through.

She started at Novant Health more than 20 years ago, first as a certified nursing assistant performing basic patient care in hospitals and later as the accreditation manager until the network created her current role in 2011.

“I wanted to do more than patient care,” Caldwell said of the transition. “I wanted to work with policies to ensure that the patient gets what they need before they come into the hospital. I wanted to be the voice for that patient.”

Health equity means ‘knowing your numbers’

Part of being that voice requires getting out of the office, clinics and hospitals, Caldwell said. As a diversity facilitator for Novant Health, she often travels to visit face-to-face with people of color who lack adequate health care access.

“We need to make sure our marginalized patients get their COVID and flu vaccines,” Caldwell said. “Everyone in the community needs to have the same care. We need to bring the service to them.”

You can’t miss the Novant Health sprawling 40-foot Community Care Cruisers, rolling clinics that have served Winston-Salem and Charlotte over the years. Another one just hit the streets in Wilmington. This way, a nurse goes directly to the patients. During these trips, Caldwell, who is African American, educates people about booster shots and vaccinates those confined to their beds.

“I’m not just saying, ‘Go see a doctor,’” Caldwell said. “I’m saying, ‘Know your numbers. Know what your blood pressure is. Know your cholesterol. Know what makes you tick every day. And if you don’t have a doctor, let me help you get to a doctor.’”

Caldwell said this level of personal outreach is paramount. Maternal health is just one example. African-American women are three times likelier than white women to die from a pregnancy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also reports that implicit bias can affect interactions between patients and their providers. Novant Health is working to address disparities by reducing bias through training and improving patient access to prenatal care.

Sometimes structural racism goes the other way. Caldwell remembers, while working full time as a nurse, more than one encounter with a patient who refused treatment from her.

“I came across people who voiced their objection to having an African-American nurse. While I acknowledged their words, I chose not to absorb their negativity,” Caldwell said. She has responded by expressing a desire for the patients to have a positive experience. “This is precisely why I am passionate about engaging with people and providing education: to empower them with the knowledge they need to maintain their health and understand their needs.”

The value of a trusted mentor

As Caldwell sees it, education has the power to eliminate ignorance and encourage empathy.

Panissa and Elleton Mickey McCullough.
Panissa Caldwell, right, with her mentor Elleton McCullough. Caldwell credits McCullough's nursing course with reshaping her worldview. She uses the lessons she learned then to always see the bigger picture and to "help others be great."

Its impact has stuck with Caldwell since college. She began attending Winston-Salem State University in 1993 to study nursing. That decision was a turning point. Caldwell said her worldview as an African-American woman in health care was reshaped after taking professor Elleton McCullough’s nursing course.

“That class made me who I am today,” Caldwell said. “I’m a nurse because of her. Today she is still my mentor because she has taught me how to help other people be great, not judge, and always see the bigger picture.”

McCullough, whom Caldwell knows as “Mickey,” retired from Novant Health as a nurse at Forsyth Medical Center, where she served as the first RN manager in its radiology unit.

“I saw early on Panissa’s ability to lead as a student,” McCullough said. “Nursing shortages continue to exist in many hospital settings, but not under Panissa’s leadership.”

The two are regularly in touch as sorority sisters. Caldwell is president of the local Chi Chi chapter of Chi Eta Phi Sorority, Inc., a national nursing organization with more than 8,000 members (McCullough was a charter member of the local chapter in 1978).

Mentoring African-American women is crucial to their understanding of their health and what resources are available to treat them, Caldwell said.

“You need to speak up for women,” she said. “I’m teaching them to have a plan of care for themselves before they leave the doctor. I ask them, ‘Who’s your primary care doctor? When was the last time you had your breast exam? How much water are you drinking?’ Educating them is the part that I love so much, and teaching them to advocate for their own care.”

After Caldwell earned her bachelor’s in nursing, she received a master’s in health administration from Pfeiffer University. This year she expects to complete her doctorate in healthcare administration, at Virginia University of Lynchburg.

When Caldwell isn’t working, teaching or attending school, she volunteers with Chi Eta Phi Inc., Delta Sigma Theta Inc. and Piedmont Black Nurses Association. As vice chair of the Goodwill Northwest board, she steers its employment and job-training mission. Caldwell also serves on the American Red Cross and Samaritan Ministries boards.

The value of education is more than an academic pursuit, she says. Education is also the result of consistent engagement with people who aren’t always heard.

“Every day, make sure you teach somebody something,” Caldwell said. “We’re in the community arming people with knowledge. I want to teach them how to speak up for themselves, and to be their own advocates.”


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