By Mitch Moore, News Sentinel Custom Publishing correspondent
At the time of its genesis, Premier Surgical might have been perceived as an unlikely coalition of previously competing surgical practices. But when 15 general and vascular surgeons decided in 1995 to join forces and work together, they created an affiliation that would continue to have a positive impact on the Knoxville healthcare profession two decades later.
Its founding physicians set the stage for a lasting legacy of commitment to the health of the community. As a result, Premier Surgical is celebrating 20 years of providing high-quality medical care to the entire East Tennessee region.
Today, the practice continues to focus on improving the patient experience while providing the best in efficient and cost-effective care.
And while the rapidly changing climate of the healthcare industry in the mid-1990s played a role in the creation of Premier Surgical, CEO Kevin Burris stresses that bringing surgeons from multiple practices under one roof allowed those physicians to deliver better care to their patients.
“We wanted to provide what the community needed in a way that was economically viable,” says Burris, who has served as CEO for the past 20 years. Indeed, having that many surgeons working together allowed the individual practitioners to provide higher levels of service.
“It enhanced our ability to improve our quality of care, which is something I worked on my entire practice,” says retired surgeon and Premier co-founder Dr. Neal Peebles. “It was a good move for us individually, for our patients and for the hospitals we worked with. Premier Surgical is important for Knoxville.”
One of the key factors allowing the surgeons to improve their level of care was the selection of Burris as CEO. With Burris serving essentially as the business manager of the practice, the physicians were able to spend more time focusing on the needs of their patients.
“We had Kevin overseeing the bookkeeping, dealing with all the regulations and managing personnel issues, which gave us doctors much more time to be with patients,” recalls retired surgeon Dr. Robert Collier, who was also one of the original partners in Premier Surgical. “We were delighted to have him doing those things we didn’t really like doing, and having a happier surgeon was good for our patients.”
Having 15 surgeons working together in one practice also resulted in efficiencies when it came to the doctors’ schedules. Previously, each surgeon would routinely work at multiple area hospitals, which at the time included St. Mary’s Hospital, Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center and Parkwest Medical Center. The structure of Premier Medical allowed each hospital to be adequately staffed with surgeons but also let individual surgeons work out of only one facility.
“We were each able to establish one hospital as a base, which kept us from traveling all over town,” says Peebles. “Before that, I remember doing surgery at three, sometimes five hospitals in a single day.”
“Being able to stay in one hospital, you knew who you were going to be working with each day,” echoes Collier. “Things run more smoothly when you’re not spread out over three or four hospitals.”
Collier adds that better patient care, increased efficiencies and having strength in numbers have allowed Premier Surgical to grow and improve as a practice over the past 20 years.
“It’s become an attractive practice that has helped them recruit new surgeons to replace those of us who have retired,” he says. “We recently had a 20th-anniversary dinner at Cherokee Country Club, where I was able to meet a sterling group of newcomers. That’s vital to any practice.”
After starting with that first group of 15 surgeons, Premier Surgical today boasts 28 board-certified general and vascular surgeons. Over the years, a total of 52 surgeons have been a part of the practice. Burris attributes the expansion of Premier’s staff, in part, to factors like technology related to weight-loss surgery, which helped meet a growing need in the community.
“Also, as our population has aged, we’ve seen more Medicare patients, which has meant more vascular surgeries,” he explains.
During the period of time when Premier Surgical’s founding partners first joined forces, physicians were coming under increased governmental regulation and financial pressure from insurance companies, which prompted Peebles, Collier and several of their colleagues from other Knoxville-area surgical practices to consider working together.
“It occurred to me that if we were able to merge what I considered the core of general surgery in Knoxville outside the university system, we would be in a better position to negotiate with insurance companies,” Peebles says.
To his surprise, his colleagues were receptive to the idea, and after a few stops and starts over the ensuing months, the pieces began to fall into place.