Arkansas Hospital Association Health & Science

Innovation in Action

The following article is from AHA, a custom publication of Vowell, Inc., which also produces Arkansas Money & Politics.

By Nancy Robertson, Senior Editor

Howard Memorial Hospital CEO Debra Wright is a health care innovator. Known for making accessible a cadre of specialists to this Critical Access Hospital located in Nashville, Arkansas and for successfully growing its outpatient business, Wright speaks passionately about the privilege of serving patients in Howard County and the surrounding area.

“My heart has always been in the not-for-profit setting,” she says. “Our focus is on our mission to improve the health of the communities we serve. Providing charity care to those who do not have the resources to pay for health care is a perfect example of how a not-for-profit hospital can improve health in its local communities.”

In order to provide that charity care, however, the hospital must be a strong business organization. “At Howard Memorial, (HMH) we understand that there has to be a margin in order to fund the mission (no margin, no mission),” says Wright, “so we operate according to a Strategic Plan with annual goals to guide us in our operational decision-making.”

Wright believes that goals cannot be accomplished in isolation; achievement requires every employee to be engaged.

“Critical Access Hospitals, especially, have limited resources, so working together to achieve our goals ensures that funding will be available to provide the charity care and implement the new services our patients need right here, so they do not have to travel a great distance to receive health care.”

She is equally passionate about HMH being a great place to work for its 200+ employees. “I’m a firm believer that no one person’s job or title is more important than any other in a hospital setting; every job and the person doing it make the contributions that are necessary to achieving good outcomes, employee and patient satisfaction and teamwork. Every employee deserves a pleasant work environment, since we spend more time at work than we are able to spend with our family and friends. Therefore, as leaders, we must do all we can to assure our hospitals provide the most pleasant work experience and environment possible.”

First, There was Nursing
Wright comes to her role as CEO speaking the dual languages of “clinician” and “business leader.” Wadley Regional Medical Center in Texarkana, Texas was the large facility where she worked as a registered nurse for more than 20 years, caring for patients while taking on increasingly demanding leadership roles.

“I feel very blessed to have worked with the staff at Wadley,” she says. “The culture there both encouraged and made possible numerous educational experiences.”

Her nursing roles at Wadley included serving as an RN, Shift Director, Special Projects Coordinator, Executive Director of Nursing, CNO, and finally as the Chief Clinical Officer, responsible for nursing, the heart cath lab, cardio-pulmonary department, surgery, med-surg, ICU, lab, maternal health services, the GI lab and other non-nursing clinical departments. “I was a poster child for upward mobility opportunities!” she smiles.

“As time went on, I realized that though I understood clinical language – how we communicate with physicians, etc. – the language of business was very different. That is why I pursued my master’s in business administration. My leadership role demanded that I be proficient in both areas.”

Meeting Patient Needs
In 2009, Wright accepted the role as CEO at Howard Memorial. “I am grateful for the opportunity to have been chosen for this position,” she says. “When I joined HMH, the new hospital had just been built. It was a privilege to walk into this beautiful new facility, which was the right size for the services offered at the time. But we soon learned there wasn’t a lot of growing room, though there was a need for added patient services.”

Wright and the HMH Board first identified opportunities for meeting patient needs by increasing outpatient services several years ago, and they put into place not only physical sites, but also growth strategies.

“Our first major, new project was the construction of a 4,300-square foot rehab space, for which the hospital foundation donated $200,000,” Wright says.

That space is fully occupied, and now offers both inpatient and outpatient physical, occupational and speech therapy services.

A need for behavioral health services was identified by the hospital through a Community Needs Assessment (a program the administrative team began in 2013), and the new outpatient geriatric clinic dedicated to these services opened in the summer of 2015.

Also added have been a wound care clinic, sleep study program, mobile MRI, cardiac and pulmonary rehab and clinic space for a number of physicians. “We wanted all of our employed physicians to be located on our hospital campus,” Wright says. “The Foundation built our first clinic building, and a second medical office building was recently completed.”

Specialties covered by visiting physicians include OB/GYN, pediatrics, cardiology, hematology/oncology, urology and dermatology. In addition, mobile PET/CT scan units are frequently available on the campus.

Coming soon to the HMH service line: an allergy clinic is slated for opening toward the end of the fourth quarter of this year.

When driving uphill to the hospital itself, a winding road leads past several of these physician clinics and outpatient service centers, but there is lots more room on the HMH campus for future growth.

Wright reaches to pick up a leadership blog titled “Improving Rural Healthcare Delivery.” The article affirms expanding outpatient programs, and HMH currently offers four of the five recommended services listed for rural hospitals’ consideration. “I was glad to see that we’re already offering almost everything suggested,” she says.

More Innovating
“We have also tapped into a new opportunity that others might explore – HMH offers post-offer employment testing for the Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation,” Wright says. “We mostly test for physical capabilities through timed skill tasks, making certain workers are up to the demands of the positions offered.”

Another innovation: HMH in Nashville serves as the X-ray provider for a DeQueen Clinic. HMH’s radiologist offers the interpretive report within 15-30 minutes – a great improvement over the more than 1-2 week wait times clinicians at DeQueen had been used to before HMH services were employed.

Hospitals today, no matter their size, are facing an increase in demand for doing more with less.

The success of growing innovative methods of care at Howard Memorial Hospital has become a hallmark of its service, attributable, in great part, to Wright’s passion for patients and her savvy in both the business and clinical worlds. “As a hospital CEO, there is no greater reward than to work with employees who are dedicated to achieving the best possible outcomes for our patients,” she says. “They inspire me every day to strive for excellence.”

Wright honors Arkansas by having been recently elected to the American Hospital Association’s Council for the Section for Small or Rural Hospitals. She is one of 18 elected members, of which two are from AHA Region 7 (Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas). She will serve from January 2018 to December 2020.

Debra Wright, CEO of Howard Memorial Hospital

What is the best advice you ever received?
The person who takes the time to give you constructive criticism cares about you the most. Everyone can learn from mistakes. You cannot take back a mistake, so what you do the next time is what matters most.

What would you like to be doing if you weren’t in health care?
I have always been fascinated with architecture and design.

Something about me most people don’t know is…
I enjoy painting abstract art. Each person interprets an abstract painting differently.

What’s on your iPod playlist?
I do not have a playlist, but I listen to music of all kinds – jazz, blues, American Songbook classics, soft rock and oldies, depending on my mood.

What are you currently reading?
Right now, I’m reading Camino Island by John Grisham.

Where would you most like to travel?

What inspires you?
I am inspired by people who have a passion about what they do.


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