Steve Heatherly made sure there were plenty of Diet Cokes queued up in the office mini-fridge before work Monday morning — he would need at least a dozen, probably more, to get through the next 24 hours.
Heatherly faced hundreds of nurses, doctors, lab techs, billing clerks, cafeteria workers — anyone and everyone who works at MedWest-Harris hospital in Sylva — for a full day and night this week. Every hour on the hour, he repeated a short spiel laying bare the challenges and issues facing the hospital before turning the floor over to questions from a steady stream of hospital workers rotating through for the interactive marathon.
“In our current environment we felt like as quickly as possible I have the opportunity to interact with as many of our employees as possible in a very rapid succession,” said Heatherly, the newly promoted CEO of the two WestCare hospitals, MedWest-Harris and MedWest-Swain.
Heatherly likely touched on the challenge of competing for market share against Mission Hospital in Asheville. He allayed concerns that the hospital was struggling financially — at least not hopelessly so — but also charted a course for a better bottom-line.
Billed as a “frank and open dialogue,” Heatherly was bound to get questions about why he was suddenly put at the helm two weeks ago — giving Harris its own leader rather than sharing a single CEO with MedWest-Haywood as it has for the past two years.
The move signaled a retrenching of sorts following a pseudo-merger of the neighboring hospitals two years ago after they both signed a management agreement with Carolinas HealthCare System out of Charlotte. It is also a reflection of discomfort among some in the Jackson medical community about whether their hospital was getting the attention it deserved from a CEO based in neighboring Haywood County.
“Any time those type of administration changes come about, obviously people have lots of questions,” Heatherly said. “They are interested not only in the present but also the future.”
The epic, uber-long format was an effort to hit all hospital employees on every shift, bringing the whole staff up to speed at once but in the comfort of small group sessions — all the while keeping the round-the-clock operations of the hospital humming.
“He is a straight shooter,” Bunny Johns, the chair of the WestCare board, said of Heatherly. “What you see is what you get, and he will lay it on the line for you. I think it is a real talent to do that in a way people can hear it.”
For the record, Heatherly isn’t a big coffee drinker — thus the arsenal of Diet Cokes.
More ‘boots on the ground’
Meanwhile, Mike Poore has returned to being the CEO of MedWest-Haywood only. When the MedWest partnership was formed two years ago, Poore went from being the CEO at Haywood to being CEO of all three hospitals. But, that changed somewhat suddenly two weeks ago.
The stated reason: to give each hospital their own in-house leader that could singularly focus on the issues each location face.
“It makes sense for both of us to put more time into our individual organizations,” Johns said.
Things haven’t exactly been rosy for the Jackson medical community since the affiliation. Patients have been lost to Asheville. Revenues are down. The downward trend was already in play before the merger, an unfortunate combination of a doctor shortage in Jackson and the economy. But some doctors wonder whether the merger with Haywood has helped matters.
“It hasn’t gone down any more, but it hasn’t come back up,” said John Young, vice president for Carolinas HealthCare’s western region.
Several doctors apparently came to the WestCare board of directors with their concerns, thus the CEO shuffle that Young calls “more leadership boots on the ground.”
“I wanted to make sure the folks on the WestCare side of the system knew that Steve (Heatherly) had the authority to work with them to solve issues and win back market share,” Young said.
Working well with doctors
Heatherly isn’t a stranger to the staff at Harris. He has held various top positions at WestCare during the past 15 years. He spent a good part of his childhood in Sylva, went to UNC-Asheville, then got his MBA at Western Carolina University and a second masters in health administration from UNC-Chapel Hill.
He started out at WestCare in 1997 over a subsidiary company that handled physician management and billing and spent nearly a decade on the frontline of doctor-hospital relations.
Heatherly had worked his way up to second in command at Harris, serving as both the chief financial officer and chief operation office, when the merger happened. He was given a new title of chief strategy officer.
Meanwhile, however, the ranks of doctors employed directly by the hospital was swelling. MedWest now has more than 80 doctors on its payroll, a major change from the days not too long ago when doctors all worked in their own private practices.
Heatherly’s skills working with the physician community were tapped for a new position of CEO of MedWest’s physician network. He is continuing to serve in that role as well as his new role of CEO of the MedWest-Harris and Swain.
Heatherly has learned a thing or two about working with doctors over the years, and has occasionally been asked to share his insight.
The relationship between any hospital and its doctors — whether in private practice or employed by the hospital — can take many forms. Some are outright adversarial, and even the rosiest relationships have their share of tension.
“I think the pitfall for a lot of hospitals is if you aren’t fully engaged,” Heatherly said. “You really don’t even have to have active discord, but if a hospital and medical staff aren’t fully engaged then you run the risk of not walking in lockstep. Through no ill will, not being actively engaged can lead to a disconnect. You don’t always have to be in agreement, but the process of going through the dialogue is very, very important.”
That attitude could make Heatherly just the man to iron out concerns of Jackson County’s medical community.
“He is highly motivated. He is highly intelligent. He is well versed in medical systems,” Johns said. “He will bring a level of energy that is impossible to put down on paper.”