Rural Hospitals: Looking Near, and Far, for Leaders Who Fit

These are tough times for small-town hospitals, and rural healthcare in general. Many communities, though deserving, lack the populations and resources to support top-notch healthcare facilities and services. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, American Hospital Association, National Rural Health Association, and other entities have dedicated themselves to finding meaningful solutions to the challenges facing rural hospitals. These are important efforts.

But as rural hospitals and health systems try to reinvent themselves—by, for example, becoming leaner and smarter, and launching “telehealth” and other initiatives to broaden their ability to provide quality care—they require visionary, transformative leadership. They find themselves needing to recruit outside of their immediate sphere—often in major metropolitan areas—in order to find such innovative executives. This is no easy task, with the marketplace for top leaders in healthcare extremely competitive.

Witt/Kieffer's Beth Nelson

Beth Nelson

What recruiting strategies can rural hospitals adopt? First, believes Witt/Kieffer search consultant Beth Nelson, they can play to their strengths. “Rural America still has a certain Norman Rockwell allure for working professionals, and healthcare leaders are no exception,” she writes in a recent article in Hospitals & Health Networks. “Many executives will sacrifice some salary and benefits in the hopes of a better quality of life and a more meaningful role in patients’ and employees’ lives.”

But small-town charm will only go so far, continues Nelson, who supports rural hospitals across the U.S. in their executive recruiting efforts. Creative organizations are making themselves attractive to high-profile executives by learning how to:

  • Partner and align with larger organizations (often in metropolitan areas)
  • Embrace technology
  • Understand current trends in funding and finance

 When recruiting executives, Nelson writes, rural hospitals must demonstrate that, “though small, they are thinking big and reinventing their futures.”

A Good Fit?

Though a top executive may have an affinity for small-town life and tight-knit communities, that doesn’t necessarily make him or her the right person for a given job, Nelson cautions. Executives who excel in a rural healthcare environment have certain essential qualities. They are:

  • Relationship oriented.Top executives for small hospitals are the face of the organization, each and every day, and need to be completely comfortable in that role,” Nelson says.
  • Good listeners. The executive will be expected to make rounds and visit departments to hear first-hand what’s working and not working.
  • Physician friendly. Even executives who are M.D.s themselves must make a point to connect with doctors on staff and know how to recruit good ones.
  • Board friendly. In rural health care, Nelson notes, board members are “passionate and feel a sense of ownership in their governance responsibility.”
  • Part of the community. Quite simply, “people expect participation,” she writes.

While it’s important to lure leaders who can make a difference, Nelson says, rural hospitals must ensure they target executives who truly fit their community and culture.

By Paul Thomas, Senior Writer

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