University of Tennessee

PEMBA Alum Instrumental in West End Healthcare Facility Launch

December 20, 2021

A vibrant community with a diverse population coming from multiple cultural, economic, ethnic and religious backgrounds, Atlanta’s historic West End is known as the center of the civil rights movement, birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr., and home to his church and five historically black colleges and universities (HBCU). However, the district long lacked a central healthcare facility. To address the absence, the Morehouse School of Medicine broke ground on a centralized site in 2018, intending to open a new 25,000-square foot, state-of-the-art, ambulatory clinic in fall 2020.

During this time, Michelle Nichols (PEMBA, ’21), Morehouse School of Medicine’s associate dean for clinical affairs and medical director for Morehouse Healthcare, was researching executive MBA programs. A medical doctor with numerous credentials – including being board certified in family medicine, a diplomat of the American Board of Family Medicine and a member of the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), among other accomplishments – she nonetheless wanted more business education.

“You can gain a lot of business knowledge on your own just by being on the job and around other leaders, but I thought I needed formal training,” Nichols says. “That’s what led me to look at MBA programs: so that I could enhance leadership skills that I already had.”

Nichols sought input from her boss, Gregory Antoine, MD, Morehouse School of Medicine’s senior associate dean for clinical affairs and chief medical officer for Morehouse Healthcare, who is a 2010 alumnus of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business Physician Executive MBA (PEMBA).

“I told her this was a program that was 100 percent doctors from all levels of the healthcare profession,” Antoine says. “You have these colleagues from all over the country and some from foreign countries that you can interact with and learn from; the eclectic nature of the class was a major plus.”

He also told Nichols that “Chuck Noon is one of the best instructors dealing with delivery mechanisms and efficiencies that she would ever be exposed to.”

Attracted by the program’s doctor-oriented focus and its one-year duration, Nichols entered PEMBA in January 2020. However, with Morehouse’s new facility opening, the demands of her clinical and academic duties and helping lead the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the West End community, she had no choice but to take a leave of absence midway through the term. She returned in 2021 to finish the program and earn her MBA.

The delay was, in a way, fortuitous. Nichols says healthcare delivery shifted during the COVID crisis with so many people doing activities remotely, which affected the new clinic’s rollout of services. That was among the issues Nichols addressed in her PEMBA organizational action project (OAP).

“I was looking at, not only how do you market in the middle of a pandemic, when most people are remote, but also how do you grow that practice?” she says.

In addition to the clinic’s marketing, her OAP focused on incorporating and expanding service lines to integrate student and employee health services for the entire HBCU Atlanta University Consortium (AUC) and applying lean principles to this process. She says completing her OAP over two years enabled her to do more for the Morehouse Healthcare Center, which opened in December of 2020 and has been enthusiastically welcomed by the West End community.

“The Organizational Action Project is a year-long effort that gives working professionals the opportunity to make a significant impact for their organization,” Nichols’ OAP advisor, Amy Cathey, said. “Michelle has developed personally and professionally as a result of her OAP, and her work has made her healthcare organization and her community stronger – exactly the result for which PEMBA faculty hope.”

Reflecting on her time in the program, Nichols says many elements of PEMBA impressed her, listing the faculty, including Cathey, Noon, Bruce Behn and Randy Bradley, as well as the program’s leadership development coaching, as highly influential. Her experience in her cohort groups also was especially important.

“We support each other,” Nichols says. “We make sure we stay on task with our assignments. We really got close to one another, like a family. We feel like we’ll be calling one another past this experience. It’s a well-rounded program, and I’m very happy I chose it.”


Scott McNutt, business writer/publicist,