Dan Heckathorne: Healthcare CFOs need a guiding philosophy and a mantra

February 28, 2023 4:30 pm

What are the qualities that make a successful healthcare CFO? Is it leadership skills? Financial acumen? General management skills? Teaching and/or mentoring skills? A commitment to continued learning to maintain or acquire new skills? Answers vary.

But for Dan Heckathorne, CFO of San Gorgonio Memorial Hospital (SGMH) in Banning, California, success in the CFO role depends on all of the above, and more.

Dan Heckathorne

Heckathorne has striven to develop, communicate and execute throughout his 46-year career as a hospital and/or health system finance executive, consultant and all-around leadership supporter. An HFMA member since April 1979, Heckathorne has been in financial management since the first day of his career back in 1976, when he began serving as the controller trainee at a small hospital in northern Arizona. Along the way, he has developed a strong philosophy on what it takes to be a successful hospital finance administrator.

“Above all, be sure to have a strong team around you, not only on the leadership level but also on the management and staff levels,” Heckathorne said. “Work with them very closely, support them enthusiastically, teach them the finance elements they need to know and then get out of the way and let them succeed.”

Throughout a career that has revolved around the states of Arizona and California, Heckathorne has maintained a strong mantra: “Remember why we are here. It is because we have a passion to take care of people, to make a difference in our communities and to be trusted servants to carry out this mission.”

He strongly believes that living that mantra will allow anyone to succeed in today’s very tough business environment of healthcare. And having worked so long in healthcare has helped to shape Heckathorne’s perspective.

“You cannot have been in hospital finance almost 50 years and not seen almost everything possible,” he said. Over that time, as the industry has evolved, it has behooved senior finance executives to adjust, adapt and be flexible, he said.

His takeaway? “Don’t be afraid to try something new. It just might work!”

Promoting cost effectiveness of health

At SGMH, Heckathorne has helped support major initiatives focused on improving quality and reducing costs, all while also seeking to improve access to care. SGMH has worked closely with both the local insurance provider and the local health plan to make substantial progress in several initiatives aimed at improving cost effectiveness of health for its population, including mental health and substance abuse placements as well as emphasis on placing adults and newborns into the Medi-Cal (California Medicaid) insurance program. The hospital also has strived to achieve timely postpartum visits for moms and to ensure that its patients always receive their proper medications.

“This is an indication of how different teams can work together — in this case, the hospital along with the insurers — to achieve heretofore unattainable outcomes,” Heckathorne said. “This partnership approach has been a big success, and we plan to keep moving forward in these efforts.”

Throughout his years of finance leadership in small and large hospitals, health systems and California district hospitals, Heckathorne has maintained a strong belief that has helped to guide his journey. It is a belief in the power of transparency, trust, credibility, integrity and the ability to effectively communicate as the absolute foundation pieces necessary to be a successful leader.

“Without these qualities, reliance on technical skills only will make the journey very difficult, if not impossible,” he said.

This is compelling advice to any leader or manager, and woe to them if they ignore it, Heckathorne said.

Heckathorne’s favorite HFMA memory

“Taking the family to my first national HFMA convention in Boulder, Colorado, in 1984, was my fondest memory of my time with HFMA,” Heckathorne said. “I had just become a new Board member at my Arizona Chapter, and seeing the organization at a national level was eye-opening, educational and fun.” 

5 adages for healthcare finance leaders from Dan Heckathorne

5 adages for healthcare finance leaders from Dan Heckathorne

Dan Heckathorne offered five pieces of advice for his peers among healthcare finance executives, to become a part of a mantra that can help carry them to a successful future.

1 Know your business. Help the organization by developing a vision and carrying out that vision. Key steps might include, for example:

  • Focusing on key services or product lines that “make it happen” and cause your organization to be successful
  • Conducting regular operational reviews to ensure success (e.g., looking at productivity, revenue cycle, cost and budgeting)
  • Gathering information that will help in monitoring success

2 Be a team player. Understand and know the needs of your constituents, including the executive team, the board, physicians, leadership teams, directors, managers and staff. Transparency is essential, and developing trust is the highest virtue that must be cultivated to complement technical skills.

3 Be a teacher. Most people will rise to the occasion if they understand the quality and financial goals and the elements that shape results. The CFO needs to tell the story behind the results, not just report the results, to be able to lead any needed corrective actions or planning.

4 Support those around you. Remember that you rely heavily on others for information, assistance, cooperation and carrying out the vision and mission. Don’t forget that those who support you can be significant contributors to your success or failure. They also need your support for the same reason.

5 Never stop learning. Try to discover “what you don’t know.” Learn to trust the experts. You need to know a lot of things — so lean on the internal and external sources, such as HFMA, your local hospital associations, trusted consultants, auditors and others to keep you knowledgeable and help you in making informed decisions.


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