JONESBORO - Connie Hill, FACHE, executive director of St. Bernards Cancer Center, grew up in the small town of Sheridan, and decided at an early age to go into medicine after seeing her father's family members all die at very young ages.
"They died from two things: heart disease and colon cancer," Hill said. "I decided at a young age to pursue a career in the field of healthcare based on my desire to have a positive impact on other people's lives as well as to understand why some diseases perpetuate within families. Of course, the answer is much more complex than just family history. Where you live makes a huge difference, as do health choices and access to care. This knowledge has always made me feel that it is my ethical duty as a human being to fight for those who have less, whether that is healthcare, education or finances. We all have a responsibility to improve these issues in our community and state."
With a low average per capita income in Arkansas, a significant portion of the population may not have enough money to pay for deductibles and co-pays for cancer treatments. Hill said they have a robust program to assist the patient in finding coverage when there are gaps.
"We have an outstanding patient assistance program that provides coverage for patients when a gap is identified," Hill said. "I am grateful to work for an organization that lives its mission by providing care to everyone regardless of their ability to pay. Our reimbursement and patient assistance program really become an integral part of the patient's treatment team. I get calls weekly about how impactful this process has been for patients and their families."
Hill isn't one to draw attention to herself. She is more likely to talk about other members of the team.
"I am very proud of our providers and the level of care and experience they bring to this community," Hill said. "I am only one small piece of the cancer center. I am able to bring to the table my experience in practice management and Alyssa Edens, our integrated service director, who works with me in other areas, executes the strategic plan on a day-to-day basis that we have laid out for our team and community. Kevin Hawley is an invaluable resource in his director role with radiation/oncology. Kevin is our outreach person and ensures that we are meeting the needs of our community in our satellite clinic in Paragould and surrounding communities relative to the care provided to cancer patients. Kevin is the leadership champion for our stereotactic program."
Hill expects a lot from her team because their patients expect and need a lot from the Cancer Center at St Bernards.
"I do my very best to place key strong leadership people in roles that report to me and then I let them do their jobs," Hill said. "We meet daily and the team knows the strategic plan for care, for growth and for budgetary guidelines. Without quality physicians and nurses, it would be just another organization. We are very fortunate to have a core group of quality physicians, nurses, support staff and leaders who care about their community."
Hill said it is an honor to work in a beautiful facility with an integrated approach to care that allows patients to make one stop and receive all of their needs for their treatment and care.
"I believe one of the most progressive moves we have made for patients is the integration of our outpatient hematology/oncology and radiation/oncology clinics into the same facility where treatments and therapies are offered," Hill said. "These services are coupled with navigation, social services and dietary therapies to provide a partnership with the patient and family as they receive treatment and adjust to their new normal."
Treatment options are expanding for patients.
"We are offering several new therapies such as stereotactic body radiation therapy," Hill said. "We are excited about the expansion of our physician team with radiation oncologist Christian Okoye, MD, who is experienced in stereotactic therapies. Stereotactic therapy delivers precisely focused therapy whereas previously larger and less discrete doses were delivered. This preserves surrounding tissue and allows more effective treatment with much lower doses of radiation."
Another advance she points to is the FDA approval for a number of new immune drugs on the market. Hill said some of these new drugs include; Tencentriq for lung cancer and Opdivo for bladder cancer, which open treatment to a new group of patients.
Hill had 30 years of experience in physician practice management before beginning to work on the medical center side five years ago to begin integration that improves patient care and efficiencies.
"Healthcare is changing and we have to function as an integrated system which includes the physician office all the way across the continuum to the therapies and inpatient care," Hill said.
One of the biggest challenges she sees is the uncertainty in healthcare with the repeal of the Affordable Care Act being discussed. How will that impact care? We also will be seeing the change in payments coming with bundled payment initiatives."
New initiatives at St. Bernards Cancer Center include continued growth in the outreach areas.
"We want to be certain that if you have survived cancer that you are receiving the recommended follow up, testing and support that is sanctioned by the Commission on Cancer to prevent reoccurrence of your disease," Hill said.
Hill is currently president of the Arkansas Healthcare Executive Forum. She is passionate about mentoring the next group of healthcare leaders and believes we all benefit when diverse groups are at the table. Hill is a graduate of UAMS, received her MBA at Colorado University and her doctorate degree from Vanderbilt University. She is a fellow in the American College of Healthcare Executives.
Hill said the best part of the job is helping people.
"The most humbling experience is for cancer patients, who certainly have other worries in their lives at the moment, stop me in the clinic or call to let me know that our staff and physicians are making a difference in their lives," Hill said.
Hill and her husband have three children. Their son is an airline pilot for Southwest Airlines, their oldest daughter is a surgical assistant and their youngest child is a lawyer.