Benjamin Anderson was a physician-recruiter in Dallas when he set his career goal: Become a rural hospital CEO by the time he was 40. He got his chance in late 2008 when he was called to interview at Ashland Health Center, which includes a 24-bed critical access hospital, a long-term care unit, and a rural health clinic.
As Anderson recalls: “The board chairman said, ‘Ben, these facilities are 55 years old, our finances are upside down, we have no doctor and no CEO, and we’ve had neither for more than six months. Our morale is low, our turnover is high, and if we don’t turn this thing around quickly, we’re going to lose this facility. If that happens, we’ll lose our schools because we won’t have the jobs to support our schools. And if that happens, we’ll lose our community.’”
Anderson took the job.
Shortly after assuming the helm at Ashland Health Center, Anderson arranged a meeting with two physician faculty members from the Wichita-based Via Christi Family Medicine Residency to get advice about the hospital’s most pressing need: How to recruit physicians to a town of 900 residents that is an hour’s drive to the closest Walmart.
They told Anderson to look for physicians who are committed to international medical missions. Physicians who are willing to practice medicine in a mud hut in Africa don’t put a lot of value on having a nearby Nordstrom’s or fancy restaurants; they are motivated by the opportunity to serve. To recruit mission-driven physicians, Ashland Health Center needed to offer a good quality of life in rural America and significant time off—up to eight weeks a year—that clinicians could use to work in a developing country.
The two faculty physicians then challenged Anderson to prove that he was committed to mission-focused health care by going to Africa himself. “Just flippantly, I said, ‘All right. I’ll go,’” Anderson says. “I didn’t really have any idea what I was signing up for.”
Ten months later, he flew to Zimbabwe to build screens that keep cobras and mosquitoes out of missionary housing. The trip changed his life and the life of Ashland Health Center. “Coming back, I decided this was really the direction that our organization needed to go, not just for physicians, but for all of our staff,” he says. “If all of our staff could have an opportunity like this, it would transform the culture in our organization.”
Two years ago, Ashland’s board approved a policy that allows every employee to take between four and eight weeks off work each year for mission trips or any other purpose. Since then, a maintenance worker, certified nurse assistant, and other staff members have gone on mission trips.
And the health center now has two physicians, both of whom have worked as medical missionaries in developing countries.
With the two new physicians, a physician assistant, and a nurse practitioner (in addition to the physician assistant who did solo duty before the new staff arrived), Ashland’s service volumes are up in every category. In 2012, the health clinic treated 27 percent more patients than the year before.
When Anderson arrived on the job in January 2009, the organization had about two weeks of operating capital in the bank. Today, that number is $1.6 million, or about 80 days of operating capital.
“We are regaining some of the trust that had been lost and starting to attract a patient base from outside the community,” Anderson says.
Benjamin Anderson, MBA, is CEO, Ashland Health Center, Ashland, Kan.
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