Hocking Valley Community Hospital: LeeAnn Lucas-Helber, President and Chief Executive Officer

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(Editor’s Note: Since this interview was conducted, a few management changes have been made at Hocking Valley Community Hospital. The article below is based on information collected in mid-December 2012.)

Like most rural hospitals, Hocking Valley Community Hospital plays an integral role in its community, for Hocking Valley is the only hospital in its county.

A critical-access facility located in Logan, Ohio, Hocking Valley struggles to meet the needs of an economically challenged community. The hospital serves a 55 to 60-percent aging payer mix of Medicaid, Medicare, and underinsured patients. Furthermore, Hocking Valley is an economic engine within its community, being the second-largest employer in the county.

LeeAnn Lucas-Helber has been president and CEO for five years; however, her career with the hospital stretches back 18 years. She has previously served as chief financial officer and network administrator. In fact, it was her IT background that brought her into healthcare where she discovered an outlet for her passion to make a difference in other people’s lives.

She finds that the connection she shares with the community serves to motivate this passion, observing, “When you go home at night, you’re seeing those people in your grocery store, they go to your church, your children go to school with their children, so you’re caring for your friends and your neighbors.”

Reaching beyond critical-access care

Although a critical-access hospital by definition, Hocking Valley has expanded its services beyond what is expected of them. For example, the organization runs an urgent-care center inside the hospital, and it has a 10-bed geriatric psych unit in addition to its 25 patient beds.

“That’s definitely a need that we have,” Lucas-Helber said. “We pull from a large referral area. It’s kind of a unique unit. Obviously not a lot of places have that.”

In fact, since the service was added in 1997, the psych unit has attracted people from as far away as South Columbus.

“We get some fabulous comments from families,” she said. “People will bring a family member and say, ‘You got mom back into life’…and helped them to be functional and understand what’s going on with them.”

She added, “It’s just a wonderful thing to see folks that are just really not engaged and disconnected with family and life in general to get reconnected through some activities and therapy sessions. It’s just a wonderful thing.”

Hocking Valley is also proud of its HCAHPS patient-satisfaction scores. As a critical-access hospital, they’re not required to participate in the HCAHPS survey, but she explained that the leadership team felt it was important to see how the hospital was doing compared with other area organizations. She said they routinely score in the 90th percentile or higher, often surpassing the numerous hospitals in nearby counties.

“In a small hospital you can’t be all things to all people, but you can certainly compete from the aspect of service,” Lucas-Helber stated. “Patients, there’s no question that when they come to a healthcare facility, they’re expecting you to provide quality care and do everything right, but it’s how you make that patient feel while they’re here, and not only the patient, but their family. You’re caring for everyone and keeping them informed, and just creating the best experience that you possibly can.”

Modeling a positive culture

Several years ago, the organization became involved with the StuderGroup. Lucas-Helber recalled that at the time, it was a new, but common-sense approach to changing the health of the hospital’s culture.

“When you’re honest with your folks and have a healthy culture, when you have to face some difficult decisions, your culture’s more accepting,” she said, adding that the culture has drastically changed since she first arrived at Hocking Valley in 1995. For one thing, the executive team places a higher priority on regularly communicating with the staff.

As CEO, she holds frequent employee forums where she sets aside time over a three-day period to update all of the employees and staff on organizational issues, such as patient satisfaction, quality metrics, finances, new services, and other changes the hospital is making. It’s important, she said, to connect every employee with the hospital’s mission and goals.

“We’ve worked really hard to make sure when you ask someone what they do, they don’t say, ‘Well, I’m just a housekeeper.’ No, you’re in charge of making sure that our infection rate is low,” Lucas-Helber explained. “Making that connection gives them ownership in that role, and that, ‘You are a key piece to our success.’ It takes all of us working together, growing in the same direction to make all of the moving parts of healthcare flow smoothly.”

Advocating for rural healthcare

Lucas-Helber firmly believes that small rural hospitals are critically important to the healthcare system in the United States.

“Sometimes I don’t think communities realize what a valuable asset that that community hospital is,” she stated. “Again, we can’t do all the grand things that you may be able to do in a large urban setting or a teaching setting, but there are things that can be initiated and started in your community hospital.”

Even if the patient has to go to a larger facility for more complex care, they will often return to the community hospital for rehab or other post-acute needs. That alone, she said, “keeps healthcare costs down.” It also helps the families.

“If you’re here in your hometown at your local hospital, it’s less strenuous for families than to travel an hour, hour and a half, two hours to a larger city to help in that recovery process.”

-by Pete Fernbaugh

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