Clara Barton Hospital: Curt Colson, Chief Executive Officer

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Clara Barton Hospital is a 23-bed licensed critical-access hospital in central Kansas. Located in Hoisington, Clara Barton serves a community of 3,000 people. Unlike most of its fellow critical-access hospitals, though, Clara Barton also offers surgical services, including general surgery, orthopedic surgery, and urological surgery.

Curt Colson, chief executive officer, came onboard in February 2011. A veteran of smaller, more rural hospitals, Colson brings a focused perspective to play on what it means to be a critical-access facility in 2012.

“We recognize we can’t be everything to everybody,” he stated. “My focus is really on what we do best and on trying to grow and improve that as opposed to bringing in some of the other services that can be found in some of the other surrounding larger hospitals.”

The politics of modern healthcare

Colson acknowledged that it is imperative for rural facilities to work closely with local and state legislatures, especially given the sizable representation urban healthcare organizations have within the political arena. As a critical-access hospital, many factors are always at stake.

“I think critical-access hospitals have been in jeopardy ever since the day that they were initiated back in the 2000s,” Colson said. “But critical-access hospitals are meant to preserve and provide a way of life and that’s to the rural America that’s living out here. We’re making sure that they’re provided care.”

Clara Barton Hospital works closely with the Kansas Hospital Association, and Colson said he has found them to be a powerful advocate for both rural and urban hospitals. He has also found that the Kansas legislature tends to understand the critical-access perspective, in spite of a Republican majority that sees the need for spending cuts.

Unfortunately, when the legislature was looking at forming a healthcare supercommittee, the representation on it was leaning more toward larger urban communities than rural. However, this underscores a frequent challenge that rural organizations experience on the federal level where they have to fight to be heard.

“Rural America is a large part of the United States, so you have to think that there’s got to be some understanding even in states like New York or Illinois or Massachusetts or Florida where there are rural parts,” Colson said. “So you think that they have to recognize the importance of healthcare in those areas and that not everybody can be forced into a large facility.”

Steady as she goes

Despite the political challenges of being a healthcare executive, Colson said his plans for Clara Barton are to remain focused and steady. No political change can deny the fact that this hospital has been successful. After all, not every critical-access facility offers surgical services, but Clara Barton does. Colson wants to make sure its strongest parts remain healthy and vibrant. This will feed its success. He also wants to start marketing their quality of care in a more effective way.

“That’s kind of a challenge when you’ve got the HCAHPS and some of the other benchmarking programs that make it difficult for you to compete with some of the big places just because of the number  and the volume of certain services–heart attacks and whatever else–that we may not have as much of, and those numbers are not fairly represented to the public,” he explained.

The stereotyped image of rural facilities offering less capable and less qualified care is simply not always true, Colson contests, but he said it’s a challenge to be the younger brother or sister to an athletic superstar like the urban hospital.

Nevertheless, Colson has had a great experience as CEO since he arrived last year.

“It’s been a blessing,” he said. “It’s a great community in central Kansas and has a good staff and good providers. It has people who care about their patients. So, it’s been a good transition.”

Recruiting the future

As with many other U.S. healthcare facilities, Clara Barton is confronting the issue of staffing and recruiting qualified candidates, whether they’re physicians, physical therapists, physician assistants, or nurses. Colson said the organization is also taking a decades approach and looking beyond the horizon, trying to raise future healthcare professionals from the local community.

Currently, the hospital is working with sixth-graders and conducting sixth-grade health fairs in an attempt to get local students interested in healthcare as a possible opportunity when they start making future plans. It also has a job-shadowing program for local high schools and has seen an interest primarily in nursing, but also in certain physician specialties like neurology and urology.

“We’re trying to grow local crops, I guess,  recruiting local students into becoming doctors and nurses and maybe coming back to our community and providing those services,” Colson said.

Expanding market share

In the next three to five years, Colson said he’d like to see Clara Barton gain a larger share of the market. Recently, another local hospital switched licensing to an ambulatory-outpatient hospital. This reduced available beds by 66 in the county, leaving the three local rural hospitals to pick up the slack.

“There’s really kind of a lack of available bed space here,” Colson said. “Unfortunately, we’re limited by the confines of the regulations of critical-access.”

Clara Barton has also discussed adding an ICU and growing surgical services to include more orthopedic and urology offerings. The imperative here, though, is to provide what the community needs and to provide it with quality.

“Healthcare itself is important regardless of your community size and hospital bed count,” Colson said. “Healthcare access ought to be available to all of us, though sometimes that does bring challenges for those who are uninsured or underinsured.

“But as a local community hospital, we do our very best to try to provide services regardless of one’s ability to pay, just so that we can make sure those people living in our rural community are taken care of and preserve the way of life that we all like here.”

-by Pete Fernbaugh

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