Meet Dr. Julie Ann Freischlag

Dean of the School of Medicine

As an alumnus of the Wake Forest School of Medicine, there’s a good chance you’ve already heard of Julie Ann Freischlag, MD. In previous months, you’ve likely read about her unprecedented hiring as Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center’s first-ever female chief executive officer—a position she assumed in May 2017. You might also have met her in person at one of the regional events with alumni that she held after becoming interim dean last July.

In February, she also officially accepted the role of dean of the School of Medicine, and we’d like for you to get to know her better.

Trailblazer at the Helm

Freischlag, isn’t just well known within the Wake Forest community; her reputation as a pioneering leader in academic medicine preceded her long before she joined our institution.

A vascular surgeon, Freischlag came from the School of Medicine at the University of California – Davis (UC Davis), where she served as vice chancellor for Human Health Sciences and dean of the School of Medicine. Before that she was the first female chair of the department of surgery, and surgeon-in-chief, at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.

Freischlag’s national leadership roles have included serving as past president of the Society for Vascular Surgery Foundation, past chair of the Board of Regents of the American College of Surgeons, past president of the Society for Vascular Surgery and past president of the Association of VA Surgeons and the Society of Surgical Chairs. She is also a peer-elected member of the elite National Academy of Medicine—the medical field’s highest recognition of professional achievement and volunteer service.

In addition to her leadership roles, Freischlag has been firmly committed to clinical practice and research. She was the editor of JAMA Surgery for 10 years and is an editorial board member for many other prestigious medical journals. She is widely published, having produced more than 250 manuscripts, abstracts and book chapters. She also remains an internationally recognized expert in her area of specialty—the treatment of thoracic outlet syndrome.

Despite her multiple roles and obligations, Freischlag is still a practicing surgeon. Even now, there are occasions when her schedule finds her in an operating room at the Medical Center.

This history of excellence in her field, combined with a strong drive to cultivate advancements in academic medicine and research, is what appealed to the search team that recruited Freischlag.

“She possesses the full range of academic medical experience and clinical expertise to take Wake Forest Baptist to the next level,” says Nathan Hatch, PhD, president of Wake Forest University.

As CEO, Freischlag oversees the full scope of Wake Forest’s academic health system. But as dean, she will focus on growing the School of Medicine in both size and reputation.

Wearing Two Hats

Freischlag’s dual roles are not that uncommon at high-level academic medical centers. She points out that the University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins University, Vanderbilt University and the University of Michigan have all combined their respective CEO and dean positions. The key to success for this method, she says, is in the strengths and talents of the leadership teams—in this case her CEO council and her academic leadership team.

“If you have strong teams running both your academic and clinical missions, you can make it happen,” says Freischlag. “The most important thing we recognized was that we need to make sure that at all times we are remembering both our academic integrated network and our clinical side—that we are always thinking of our students, our research and our innovation and how they combine to impact patient care. With that said, both teams work independently. Having me wear both hats helps maintain the overarching vision that bridges the two.”

Freischlag, seen here addressing a meeting of faculty and staff, has blazed trails throughout her career, including being the first woman to serve as chair of surgery and surgeon-in-chief at Johns Hopkins.

Mary Claire O’Brien, MD, senior associate dean of education, says having Freischlag as both dean and CEO is a huge “win-win” for the institution.

“We don’t have three separate missions (education, research and patient care); we have one mission, and that is providing excellent patient care that is going to be better because we leverage research and education,” O’Brien says. “That’s what being a learning health care system means.”

Terry Hales Jr., MBA, executive vice dean for Wake Forest School of Medicine, agrees and says both sides highly benefit.

“With Dr. Freischlag’s decision to serve as both CEO of the Medical Center and dean of the School of Medicine, the academic enterprise is now a purposeful part of almost every conversation,” he says. “Julie began to impact the School of Medicine the day she arrived. Her love and energy for academics (both education and research) were immediately evident, as she was purposeful to engage with our faculty and our students on many different levels.”

In addition to O’Brien and Hales, Freischlag’s carefully selected academic leadership team includes Lynn Anthony, MD, senior associate dean for faculty affairs; Greg Burke, MD, MSc, senior associate dean for research; and Lisa Marshall, chief philanthropy officer and vice president of Philanthropy and Alumni Relations.

A primary reason Freischlag’s team-based approach works so effectively is that she has empowered her team members to lead according to their strengths.

“I like to figure out what people want to do and what they can do, and let them go forth and make decisions and be leaders of their own teams,” she says. “During my interim term, I really figured out who worked best on my teams, and now both teams are operating at a highly functional level.”

While team empowerment is critical, Freischlag says flexibility and attitude are also key.

“I tend to put a lot of joy in my work, and a lot of energy,” she says. “One thing people have consistently told me is that they have a lot of fun working with me. We laugh, we figure out where we’re going, and that’s how we make decisions.”

O’Brien backs up this assessment: “Julie is an empowering leader. She is candid, pragmatic and no-nonsense, but she is also deeply appreciative and very joyful. It’s inspiring.”

Freischlag lives in Winston-Salem with her husband Phil Roethle, a retired financial executive. Their family includes Matthew and wife Michelle; Paul and wife Gretchen; Taylor, a graduate of the University of Maryland; and two grandchildren, Zoe and Milo.