Pikeville Medical Center: Walter E. May, Chief Executive Officer

by HCE Exchange on May 16, 2012

Pikeville Medical Center is a 261-bed acute and tertiary-care rural hospital located in Pikeville, Ky. Through diligent stewardship of its resources and devoted leadership, Pikeville has managed to defy many of the stereotypes traditionally applied to rural healthcare.

A not-for-profit Christian organization formerly affiliated with the Methodist denomination, Pikeville changed its approach a number of years ago and began expanding beyond acute-care services and more toward tertiary-care services. Presently, it has all major specialties covered and has started recruiting for a multitude of subspecialties.

“It’s made quite a difference in our hospital,” Walter E. May, chief executive officer, said.

In 2000, Pikeville opened a new tower, and since then, technology has been a top priority. May said he strives to keep all technology up-to-date, and consequently, the hospital has some of the best medical technology and diagnostic equipment in the country and is now a regional referral center. Currently, the hospital is working through a $100-million expansion project that includes a new physicians’ office building and a 1200-car parking garage adjacent to the hospital.

With over 100 employed physicians out of 280 credentialed physicians at the hospital and a staff of over 2300, May emphasizes that Pikeville isn’t trying to be the largest hospital; it’s trying to be the best.

A formidable alliance

A transformational point in the hospital’s history came in its alliance with the Cleveland Clinic’s heart-surgery program.

“By having this affiliation, we can send our heart surgeons to Cleveland for additional training or for continued education in a lot of new procedures that they’re developing,” May said. “We also send our operating-room technicians and nurses to Cleveland for additional training, and the whole idea is that we will try to mirror the procedures the way we do them here the way they do them in Cleveland.”

Pikeville’s physicians and heart surgeons are credentialed at the Cleveland Clinic, and although the alliance is still fresh, May said the hospital is already seeing improvements in heart-surgery outcomes.

”The fact that they were willing to affiliate with us speaks well of our hospital,” May said. “I believe that alone has brought us some patients.”

Focused on technology

Another way in which Pikeville has sought to distinguish itself is through the technology it has to offer. Recently, it purchased two 320-slice scanners from Toshiba. At the time of the transaction, Toshiba told May that Pikeville was the first hospital in the country to purchase more than one 320-slice scanner from them. This kind of technological advancement helps the organization with its referrals.

“We’ve only been into the tertiary-type care services for a few years, and you have to go back and try to break referral patterns where prior the physicians had been sending them to some large metropolitan hospitals,” May explained. “We can easily call on these physicians and tell them that we’re not just as good as where they’re sending them, but we’re better. We have better equipment and hopefully, better doctors.”

It also helps with physician recruitment. Pikeville has a long list of doctors it is recruiting and has been bringing in, on average, 25 doctors each year.

“Taking the stand that we do on our technology, it helps you recruit doctors,” May said. “They like to come to places that have the latest technology.”

Quality and safety-conscious

In addition to a heavy focus on technology, Pikeville is very active on quality and safety matters. The slightest complaint from a patient is enough to launch a full investigation into the matter.

“To the best of our ability, we try to satisfy the patients and look to see if there’s something wrong with the system that can be tweaked or areas where our policies or procedures need to be improved,” May said. “That’s a constant, ongoing effort.”

Such conscientiousness has gained national and state recognition for Pikeville. It has been named National Hospital of the Year two years in a row. Modern Healthcare Magazine ranked Pikeville seventh on its list of Best Places to Work in Healthcare in 2010 and fifth in 2011. In 2012, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce named Pikeville one of the Best Places to Work in Kentucky. And U.S. News and World Report has named Pikeville one of the top-performing hospitals in the U.S.

“Those are quite a lot of honors for a hospital in what’s considered a rural area to be getting,” May stated.

An unconventional executive

May is a broadcaster, not a trained healthcare executive, and owns around 10 radio stations. He started on the Pikeville board of directors in 1962. At the time, he was the youngest person to ever serve on the board. He is now the longest-serving member.

In 1990, he became Chairman of the Board and nurtured three CEOs and served as interim CEO during transitional periods, taking no salary for his efforts.

His first stint as CEO outside of an interim position came in early 2000 during the construction of the tower. After two years, he needed open-heart surgery and made the mistake of returning to work too soon. Realizing that he wouldn’t be able to function at full capacity for a while, May recommended the hospital’s COO. She held the role for seven years before taking another position in North Carolina. At that point, May was hired as CEO again and has held it ever since.

He once thought broadcasting was his niche, but has since learned otherwise.

“I’m getting more satisfaction out of this than I ever did being in broadcasting, because I know that there are people alive today in this region that would not be alive if I hadn’t taken some action that I’ve taken,” he said. “I know I’ve made a difference and what makes it even more special is that I can pass some of these people walking on the street. They wouldn’t know who I was, and I don’t know who they are, but somehow that makes it more special to me. “

-by Pete Fernbaugh

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