It Takes a Team
By BECKY GILLETTE
Forrest City Medical Center's, John Ballard, looking to build on service lines and customer service
John Ballard, PhD, FACHE, CEO of Forrest City Medical Center, tends to refer to himself as the accidental CEO. After graduating with a degree in computer science from Louisiana State University, he initially had a career as a computer programmer. Then he helped manage his family's Wharf Master's restaurant in Natchez, Miss., for 12 years. When the family closed the restaurant, the computer world had changed so much that employers felt he was no longer qualified to get a job in programming.
He went back to school and earned a Masters' of Business Administration (MBA) from Alcorn State University. A friend recommended he send a resume to the CEO of the Natchez Community Hospital.
"The CEO called me and said he had a job for me at a clinic," Ballard said. "I told him I don't know anything about healthcare. The CEO said he had eaten at my restaurant, and that had shown him I knew about quality and customer service. He said he could teach me about healthcare, but that he had a customer service problem in that clinic that he needed me to fix."
Ballard took the job and worked hard to help improve the service and reputation of the clinic. It was a job he found challenging and rewarding. Then he decided to go back to school again, this time obtaining a PhD in epidemiology from Walden University.
All he learned about technology, customer service and quality orientation in previous jobs are skills he uses every day in his role as a CEO.
"My background being as varied as it is, works to my advantage," he said. "Getting a doctorate in epidemiology has helped me, too, because I can to talk with doctors and nurses at a more clinical level."
Having a clinical perspective is also a bit unusual for a hospital administrator. Many people go to work in hospital administration after receiving their MBA, but experience managing the clinic was good training for his hospital work.
"I have answered calls at a clinic, preauthorized payments, worked to get payments, and worked with patients over payment plans," said Ballard, who moved to Forrest City in May. "It takes all of us working together to make it effective. Unfortunately, it is about more than quality patient care. There are so many different regulatory agencies, all the managed Medicaid out there, and fighting with insurance companies to get paid. It takes a team of specialists to make everything work smoothly."
Prior to taking his present position, Ballard previously worked as CEO of Kentucky River Medical Center in Jackson, Ky. While there, he had a focus on recruiting vital providers to the area, including a general surgeon, a urologist, a family practitioner, an ENT and four family nurse practitioners. He worked to improve customer satisfaction and emergency department performance. Under his tenure, the serious safety event rate went from 0.97 to zero with no sentinel or serious safety events during the past four years.
He has been impressed by the leadership team at Forrest City, in particular the team's commitment to quality and patient-centered healthcare.
"The hospital is poised for growth in the coming years with highly experienced medical staff and strong community support," Ballard said. "We don't have an orthopedic surgeon on staff and a top goal is to recruit one. We don't need someone with a fellowship in knee replacement. We just need a bread-and-butter orthopedist. We haven't had an ENT for a while, so we will also be working to recruit one of those."
One of his biggest challenges at Forrest City Medical Center is to combat a patient perception that "bigger is better." There are larger facilities north in Jonesboro and east in Memphis. Still, Forrest City pulls from the West Memphis market.
"A lot of people don't want to go over the bridge to Memphis," Ballard said. "For a lot of folks in our area, travel is difficult, so it helps to have local treatment. By staying here, patients are also able to use Arkansas Medicaid instead of having problems using Arkansas Medicaid in Tennessee. People tend to think they can get better care at larger hospitals. Larger hospitals may offer services we don't offer, but what we do here we do extremely well."
His goals for the hospital are to grow the service lines and capture more of the market share by improving customer service and quality.
Ballard feels that healthcare is a calling. It you don't feel passionate about it, it may not be the career for you.
"I look forward to going to work every day and making it a fun environment for people in which to work," Ballard said. "What we do is very intense, but we can do our best to make it as pleasant and rewarding as possible. We must have an environment where people feel they can speak their minds, come to me with problems. That allows us to do serious work and at the same time be a close work family. We go through birth, deaths, car wrecks and serious illnesses. You have to build that family atmosphere. That bleeds into your patient care. They pick up on your comradery. It is all about creating that culture that people know that you have their back. As leaders, we have to be willing to roll up our sleeves and help out when things get hectic. We do whatever it takes. All of our clinical leadership is of that mindset."
There is a large population of diabetic patients in the area. Forrest City Medical Center can do in-patient dialysis at the hospital, and has a wound care center with hyperbaric oxygen treatment. They also deliver on average 800 to 900 babies per year.
Ballard said Forrest City feels very familiar to his hometown of Natchez. An avid outdoorsman, he is excited about recreational opportunity in the woods of Northeast Arkansas.
"Wild turkey hunting is my passion," Ballard said. "I have hunted all my life and nothing is more challenging than wild turkey. I love to deer hunt and duck hunt, but will drop everything to go turkey hunting. The wild turkey season in Arkansas is only seven days long, so I go to Texas and Oklahoma where there are longer seasons and bigger bag limits. I also love bass fishing. With all the rivers here, I'm going to have to learn to go trout fishing."
Ballard is the youngest of five children, and has four adult children ages 22 to 32. One son and one daughter-in-law are in the U.S. Coast Guard, and a second son is about to enroll.
Forrest City Medical Center is a 118-bed facility providing complete inpatient, outpatient, surgical, diagnostic and emergency care. It employs about 90 healthcare professionals.
Forrest City Medical Center is a subsidiary of Quorum Health, which provides support for operations, accounting, recruiting, legal and regulatory compliance. Quorum Health has 27 hospitals, including two in Arkansas.
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