Next stop Arkansas for ‘true Southerner’ Sharmila Makhija

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 2,370 views 

Sharmila Makhija

Through different jobs across the country, Dr. Sharmila Makhija has devoted her work to healthcare.

And like everyone else, she’s experienced healthcare from a consumer point of view — from the good to the not-so-good.

“From my personal experiences managing my health and through the lens of being a caretaker of my parents and our family’s healthcare needs, it’s pretty clear the healthcare system is fractured and needs transformation,” she said.

Makhija’s next stop in her accomplished professional career will bring her to Arkansas, working with one of the world’s leading philanthropists to reimagine medical education in a way they hope will be considered a leader in improving health and wellness.

Makhija will begin in May as the founding dean and chief executive of the Alice L. Walton School of Medicine (AWSOM) in Bentonville. First announced in March 2021, the medical school is a standalone sister organization of Bentonville nonprofit Whole Health Institute, created in 2020 by Walton, the Walmart Inc. heiress and philanthropist.

The school has previously made several academic and medical hires and appointed nine founding board members, including Dr. Lloyd Minor, dean of Stanford Medicine, an academic medical center that includes the Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford Health Care and Stanford Medicine Children’s Health.

The campus will take shape east of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art on approximately 20 acres along Northeast J Street.

Construction of the 154,000-square-foot building will begin this spring. Polk Stanley Wilcox is the lead architect for the project. Crossland Construction is the general contractor.

Beginning with its first class of students in 2025 and pending the appropriate accreditations, AWSOM will offer a four-year medical degree-granting program that integrates conventional medicine with holistic principles and self-care practices.

“We plan on doing this with a curriculum that integrates the whole-person approach to healthcare,” Makhija said. “That means looking at the physical, mental, emotional and social aspects of care for patients and providers.

“And parallel with the medical education plan, we will work with healthcare systems to design a whole healthcare delivery model. Yes, there’s a medical school, but there’s a whole plan. You can’t be siloed and work [only] with education. You have to look at the entire system. That’s what brought me here, and that’s what is exciting.”

An oncologist by training, Makhija is the department chair of obstetrics, gynecology and women’s health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Health System in Bronx, N.Y.

She has worked there for almost eight years, living in an apartment overlooking Central Park.

“My friends tell me I will miss that. But I’m going from looking down at the trees to being with the trees, and I think that’s a much better environment,” she quipped.

Born and raised in Montgomery, Ala. — “I’m a true Southerner at heart” — Makhija’s parents were educators. Her father was a college chemistry professor, and her mother taught high school biology. Makhija decided on her career path before she was 10 years old.

“There was no one in the family that I dealt with directly every day [who worked] in medicine,” she recalled. “We had family friends who were doctors, and I was always intrigued about it.”

She was so interested that when she was 9, Makhija announced to her parents that she was ready for the job shadow of all job shadows. Makhija’s grandfather was a general surgeon and family medicine practitioner in India.

“Kids usually visit their grandparents during the summer, but mine were so far away,” she explained. “But I told my parents I wanted to go to India to spend time with my grandfather to see if this is really what I want to do.”

And so, at 9, Makhija boarded a Pan American flight and flew by herself to India to spend the summer with her grandparents. She enjoyed “obligatory” kid things like dancing and painting, but accompanying her grandfather to work each day was the best part.

“I carried his doctor bag every day,” she recalled. “I felt my job was to assess the patients in the waiting room so I could tell him what was happening. I would take notes and go in and report. I just fell in love with being with the people, learning their needs and trying to help them.

“I declared then that I was going to be a physician.”

Makhija earned her B.A. in chemistry from Cornell University (1988) and a medical degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (1992). She completed her obstetrics and gynecology residency at the University of Louisville Hospital (1996) and a fellowship in gynecologic oncology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York (1999).

Makhija received her executive MBA from Emory’s Goizueta Business School in 2011. She has held faculty positions at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

At Emory, Makhija was the division chief of gynecologic oncology, a Georgia Cancer Coalition Distinguished Cancer Scholar, and the Leach Endowed Chair in obstetrics and gynecology. She served as department chair of obstetrics, gynecology and women’s health, a tenured professor of gynecologic oncology, and the Donald E. Baxter Endowed Chair in obstetrics and gynecology at the Louisville School of Medicine.

While at Louisville, she was the chief medical and operations officer for the Center for Women and Infants and taught a course in the executive MBA program.

“Sharmila has an impressive career that spans academic, clinical, and business settings — and tremendous success in inspiring teams and communities,” said Walter Harris, president of healthcare transformation for Art and Wellness Enterprises (AWE), a services organization supporting nonprofits founded by Alice Walton, including AWSOM and Whole Health Institute. “Her leadership and passion will promote the vision to transform medical education and care, starting with creating a new pipeline of physicians.”

Like many accomplished healthcare scholars, executive recruiters approach Makhija occasionally about unique job opportunities.

“I never say no [to listening] because I want to learn about them, but if it’s not for me, I’m going to at least reach out to some people who might be suited for the position,” she said.

But as she learned about the job opportunity in Northwest Arkansas, Makhija was intrigued, even if a little unclear about Alice Walton’s overarching goal.

Walton founded Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and her proven dedication to improving access to the arts resonated with Makhija. It helped buoy her interest in Walton’s focus on healthcare transformation—and where those efforts might lead.

She said Walton’s plans, generally speaking, were and continue to be a popular and serious topic in healthcare circles.

“Any time there is something a little different, it gets attention,” she said. “It was taken seriously, but nobody really knew what it meant. As I spent more time learning about it and they evolved and began hiring people, you could see this wasn’t going to be a regular medical school. There’s nothing wrong with a regular medical school, as we have now. This [medical school] addresses entire aspects of healthcare.”

Makhija remembers her initial group interview with Walton and hearing the vision from her directly as meaningful.

“You could really feel that it was deep in her heart,” she said. “She wanted something different. It just clicked. The more time I spent with Alice and the team she’s brought [to Northwest Arkansas] to work on this…they came because they are focused on doing something good. I felt like together we could really build this into being an incredible institution.”