Tough year for HRMC teaches hard lessons

It’s a cultural tradition in nearly every society, the firm belief that people and institutions become stronger once they’ve been tested. Whether that test comes about due to one’s own shortcomings or to circumstances outside one’s control is important, but in the end it’s the outcome that we remember.

So it is with Haywood Regional Medical Center. When its Medicaid and Medicare status was lost just over a year ago and the hospital went into a financial freefall, people were angry, upset and felt betrayed. They were also very worried that the place they considered their number one healthcare option was in real jeopardy of closing down and that many friends and neighbors would lose their jobs.

In hindsight, that extreme emotional attachment to HRMC might have been its saving grace. County leaders, physicians, hospital staff, and a whole lot of concerned citizens stayed with HRMC when it might have been easier to let it sink. When the number of patients going to the hospital on a daily basis sank to single digits, inspectors still hadn’t given their final OK for re-certification, and the bank account was close to running dry, closing seemed imminent.

No one knows what corporate shape HRMC will finally take — affiliation with another hospital system and with WestCare seems certain, but the structure of that affiliation is still unknown — but now no one believes that Haywood County won’t have a hospital, which seemed a very real possibility in early March of 2008.

So what from this past year at HRMC should residents remember?

First and foremost is the responsibility that lies with the hospital’s board of trustees. These dedicated citizens who volunteer their time must be vigilant to strike a balance between the sometimes competing interests of hospital administrators and the medical staff. They must also be able to look beyond those personal and professional relationships to keep in mind the hospital’s value to the community. No person or group is more important than the institution. It’s a balancing act, but if trustees tip too far one way — as happened with the previous board’s almost blind allegiance to former CEO David Rice — bad things can happen.

Secondly, and probably just as important, is the wisdom and dedication of the long-time members of the medical community. When the medical staff asked some doctors to speak to the board of trustees at a December 2006 meeting, they pointed out very clearly that the relationship between the administration and the medical staff had become dysfunctional. The board, however, ignored those pleas.

Among those to speak at that meeting — where a well-liked ER group was about to be fired — were Dr. Henry Nathan, Dr. John Stringfield and Dr. Benny Sharpton, three of the county’s most respected physicians. HRMC’s medical community, by and large, are practicing medicine for the right reasons and need to be listened to.

Lastly, and like it or not, the CEO of a small hospital carries a lot of power. That can be either beneficial or detrimental, depending on the circumstances. If one went to Raleigh or Charlotte, the CEO of a large metro hospital might get lost among the thousands of employees, hundreds of doctors, and dozens of administrators. Not so at a hospital like HRMC. Former CEO David Rice was very powerful and became very polarizing, yet his strength of personality blinded those who should have seen his shortcomings.

HRMC’s new CEO Michael Poore will also wield a lot of influence. He has become the new face of HRMC, an affable, intelligent guy that has best been described as a “breath of fresh air.” Most believe he will serve the hospital well, and already he is restoring credibility both internally and in the community.

HRMC has survived and, perhaps, become stronger because of this crisis. It might not be so lucky if an event of this magnitude ever occurs again, a truth that should serve as a cautionary reminder to those who might too quickly forget the events of the past year.

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