Penny Wheeler

Penny Wheeler

At Allina, the physician turned health care exec has championed health equity and value-based care.

It wasn’t easy for Dr. Penny Wheeler to make the switch from direct care provider to health care executive. She had been a practicing physician for a decade when she got her first taste of health care leadership, taking on a role as medical staff president at Minneapolis’ Abbott Northwestern Hospital, part of the Allina Health system.

“I loved what I did as a physician, and I loved my patients and the wonderful people I worked with. I always thought that would be my career forever,” Wheeler says. “People ask me if I miss the practice of medicine. I say ‘Every day.’ ”

But she felt a pull toward bigger-picture issues in medicine: Inequity, declining care quality, the dearth of mental health care options. They were issues she felt she could better tackle from a leadership position. 

Seven years after she started as Abbott’s medical staff president, she was asked to serve as chief clinical officer for the entire Allina system. Initially, she was hesitant to take on another job that would take her even farther away from patients. Her wife, Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Margaret Chutich, offered some useful perspective.

“While I was struggling whether to take that job, Margaret said, ‘Why don’t you take a look at the bedside table?’ ” Wheeler says. All the books there pertained to challenges in health equity, health care improvement, and results-based care. 

Wheeler took the job and began her ascendance to the upper echelons of Allina. In 2006, she became Allina’s chief clinical officer, and in October 2013, she became president. Wheeler added CEO to her title in 2015. 

During her time in leadership at Allina, Wheeler has put health equity and care quality front and center. Years before the larger societal push for racial equity, spurred by the murder of George Floyd in 2020, Wheeler oversaw initiatives designed to address health disparities in race and disability. Wheeler also championed a value-based care model, where health care providers are paid for the quality and results of the care instead of the traditional fee-for-service model. Her mentors and peers characterize her as an empathetic executive who has led with integrity and courage.

“Penny has been an important model for inviting much more leadership participation by women in the
executive ranks of health care.

—Dr. Don Berwick, founder, Institute for Healthcare Improvement

Friend and colleague Minnesota United FC CEO Shari Ballard says Wheeler is “at the core, a complete optimist.”

Wheeler was born at Abbott Northwestern in 1958. Her father was a chemical engineer, and her mother was an active community member and volunteer. Wheeler says she blended both of their perspectives in her professional life. She describes her job as “taking practical steps to idealism.”

“That has served me well,” she says.

Wheeler grew up in Mendota Heights with a brother and a sister. She attended Henry Sibley High School (now known as Two Rivers High School), when she initially had aspirations of becoming a photographer. It was an English teacher who encouraged her to consider other careers. “Probably a lot of our mentors are English teachers,” Wheeler says. “It’s the latticework of relationships and touchpoints we have.”

Wheeler says she always enjoyed science as a kid. After some prompting from that English teacher, Wheeler began thinking about a career in medicine. A job that blended both science and humanity sounded like a perfect fit for the young Wheeler. Not to mention that she loved school, so she wasn’t deterred by a career that involved lots of it. “I thought, ‘How can I stay in school the absolutely longest?’ ” she jokes. Between her undergraduate degree, medical school, and her residency, she spent 12 years at the University of Minnesota.

Wheeler earned her undergraduate degree in physiology with a minor in American literature in 1980. After that, she started medical school and earned her medical degree in 1984. From there, Wheeler embarked on her residency in obstetrics and gynecology, also at the U of M. It’s an area of study that prepared her well for her eventual career in health care leadership, she says.

“It’s a really lovely branch in that you get to have lifelong relationships with people,” Wheeler says. “It was also good for me [when] taking over a leadership position at a health care system, because I understood what it was like to be a primary care physician, but I also understood what it was like to be in a hospital, in intensive settings, and in the operating room. To have a profession that allowed me to span that continuum of care was beneficial for me as I was trying to empathize with others.”

After completing her residency in 1988, Wheeler began practicing as an obstetrician and gynecologist with Minneapolis-based Women’s Health Consultants and at Abbott Northwestern.

Wheeler’s 2015 rise to CEO of Allina was notable for two reasons: She was the first woman and the first physician to hold that role. Industry leaders say her path to leadership has inspired countless other women in the field.

“Health care executive leadership has been largely male-dominated for much of the century,” says Dr. Don Berwick, a former Obama administration appointee and founder of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, which partnered with Allina on several quality-of-care initiatives. “There is this generation of women executives who emerged as examples of not just great executive leaders, but also an example for other women to enter leadership positions. Penny has been an important model for inviting much more leadership participation by women in the executive ranks of health care.”

“She’s been quite a leader in the field,” he adds, “not just locally, but nationally, [especially] on how to improve care quality and focusing on the needs of patients and their families.”

Wheeler has been a pioneer in pushing for a “whole person health” approach to care. “Health, to us, isn’t absence of illness,” she says. That means providers are trained to ask about patients’ living conditions, their access to food and transportation, and other metrics that may not seem ostensibly tied to health. When needed, that approach has involved connecting patients with services to address the disparities they’re facing.

Allina’s headquarters in south Minneapolis lies just eight blocks from where George Floyd was murdered two years ago. “We were already looking at disparities in care for several years, but [Floyd’s death] just amplified it all the more,” Wheeler says. “We looked at ways in which we could be part of a community solution.”

Outside of her work at Allina, Wheeler leads through service on a number of boards, including the University of Minnesota Foundation and the University of St. Thomas.

“She asks really good questions and gives genuine insight, but she doesn’t always try to be the smartest person in the room,” says Minnesota FC’s Ballard, who serves on the U of M Foundation board with Wheeler. “Her question-to-statement ratio is excellent.”

Berwick also commended Wheeler for her courageous decision-making. As a health care exec during Covid-19, she had to do quite a lot of that. “There’s a sort of aura of courage about Penny,” Berwick says. “She speaks her mind, and she does it in such a trusting and eloquent way.”

In 2021, during her final year as Allina’s CEO, Wheeler also faced a personal tragedy when her  21-year-old daughter Olivia died. Adopted from Guatemala, Olivia helped Wheeler and her wife see the world “through a set of brown eyes,” Wheeler says. Olivia was also the first to tell Wheeler about the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

Asked about her role models, Wheeler says she would “have to list my daughter as one.”

“She taught me many things—things about love, for sure, but also things about life, and things about the disparities that some face, as well,” Wheeler says.

As she steps away from day-to-day leadership of Allina, Wheeler will stay on as a board member, where she’ll continue to advocate for more equitable health care, largely owing to the perspective she learned from her daughter. Raising Olivia, Wheeler says, was her “biggest job, by far.”

See the other 2022 Minnesota Business Hall of Fame inductees.