Young Rural Healthcare Leaders Series: Q&A with Benjamin Anderson

by Jenn Lukens

One of four articles in the series Young Rural Healthcare Leaders Share Experiences and Insights.

Benjamin Anderson, CEO of Kearny County HospitalBenjamin Anderson, Age 38
CEO, Kearny County Hospital (Lakin, Kansas)

Kearny County Hospital is a 25-bed Critical Access Hospital and comprehensive health complex that serves patients of 30 nationalities within a 180-mile radius.

Education

  • BA in English, MBA, Drury University
  • Master of Health Care Delivery Science, Dartmouth College

Accomplishments and Recognition

  • Hospital gross revenue increased by 35%
  • Eliminated the use of locum tenens physicians through the creation of a regional provider sharing network
  • Recruited 10 providers, allowing the hospital to re-open its services to out-of-county patients
  • Named Becker’s Hospital Review‘s 2014, 2015, & 2016 Rising Star: Healthcare Leaders Under 40
  • Named Modern Healthcare‘s 2014 Up & Comers

 
What was your path to your current position as CEO?

Through my connections at Drury University’s business school, I was hired as a medical staffing consultant for rural hospitals located in the Pacific Northwest. During that time, I became fascinated with the role that a hospital CEO plays in his or her community. Although I enjoyed matching people’s passions with an organization’s mission, I realized that, at the end of the day, all I was doing as a medical staffing consultant was taking a physician from one community and putting him or her in another one for a fee. I wasn’t really helping the system. I decided that what I really wanted to do was become a hospital CEO by the time I was 40.

I interviewed to become a director for a pain management service line at Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center in Dallas, Texas. That seemed like a natural introduction into healthcare leadership. Through some persistence and many early-morning cold calls to hospital CEOs in Kansas, where my wife grew up, I was offered and accepted a CEO position at Ashland Health Center in rural Kansas in 2009. It was my first job in a healthcare facility and my first introduction to rural living. I worked there for nearly five years before being recruited as CEO at Kearny County Hospital in 2013.

What has been your most effective innovation at Kearny County Hospital?

A wise physician once said to me (lightheartedly), “CEOs, they can do nothing productive by themselves.  Any contribution from them comes through the work of other people, but by themselves, in the absence of accountability, they can cripple an organization.” We chuckled about it, but we both knew it was true. “We” is much better — and more accurate — than “I.”

At Kearny County Hospital, we have developed a culture that has allowed us to recruit medical staff – everything from a sustainable on-call structure to building a sense of trust between medical providers and administration. For example, earlier this week, my wife and I babysat a physician’s two-year-old daughter so he could have a date with his wife. More important than strategy, managing human resource issues, or negotiating contracts with payers is communicating that we care about our team members and their families.

What I am telling them is, ‘It’s great if you want to serve in Somalia. Go to Somalia. In fact, I’ll go with you, but you can also serve Somalis here.’

We have also implemented a successful model for medical provider recruitment that allows our medical providers to have extended time off and we encourage them to use it for medical service overseas. The area’s political refugees have become the most significant draw for many of the people we are recruiting – people who are “wired” to serve in the most challenged parts of the world. So every interview we conduct with a new physician includes a tour of the nearby Tyson Foods plant. It’s not so much the meatpacking they’re interested in; it’s the “United Nations meeting” happening in the lunchroom. What I am telling them is, “It’s great if you want to serve in Somalia. Go to Somalia. In fact, I’ll go with you, but you can also serve Somalis here. Learn Somali, learn the culture, and build relationships with them.” We get a call a few times per month from medical providers who want to work here, in part because of the multicultural experience it gives them.

What impact did that innovation have on patients, your facility, and your community?

Read more about Kearny County Hospital’s Physician Recruitment Model in the RHIhub’s Rural Models and Innovations.

It makes financial sense to take care of our team in order to prevent burnout. The resulting economic impact has been positive. When we were struggling financially, three of our medical providers volunteered pay cuts to help get us through. They walked into my office individually and offered changes to their contracts (when things improved, I went back to them and reversed those changes). I’ve never heard of that. But that’s the trust that we share with one another.

The Tyson Foods plant and growth of the refugee population is affecting our organization financially, and we are adding more than 2,000 new patients per year. Over the past 12 years, our annual number of baby deliveries has increased from 98 to 327, with patients coming from up to 120 miles away. Many of these patients are insured by Blue Cross Blue Shield through Tyson and we are finding them to be amazing people – fiercely loyal. When we love them and when we support them, they bring their friends. We’ve had many of them in our homes for meals. They are like family to us now, and some of them are choosing to receive their healthcare at Kearny County Hospital.

As a young leader in rural healthcare, what is the biggest challenge you have faced and how did you overcome it?

During my interview at Ashland Health Center, the Board Chair was honest with me and said, “Our building is 55 years old and poorly maintained. Our finances are upside down. Our morale is low and turnover is high. We have very little money left in the bank and if this hospital closes, we will lose our school. And if we lose our hospital and our school, we’ll lose our town. To lead us, I believe this community is ready for a normal, compassionate human being who wants to be a missionary to Ashland, Kansas. So, if you fit that description, I’m going to advocate for you despite your youth and lack of experience.” It was a mutual gamble and we trusted each other. So, I worked there for five years, pouring my life into that place, working long hours to help rehabilitate a broken culture – the Board Chair mentored me along the way. We recruited four new medical providers to join us and the team had many of the answers to the complex problems we were facing. They just needed a CEO who would listen to and support them.

Outside the hospital, we collaborated with our community and several neighboring towns to host a charity basketball game that involved WNBA players and U.S. Olympians playing alongside local high school student athletes. Fox Sports Network broadcast the game live in over 35 states and won an Emmy Award for it. Sports Illustrated printed a story. Over the past decade, the games have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for cancer screenings for rural southwest Kansas women. The most remarkable part of this story is that the idea came from a 21-year-old dishwasher in our hospital kitchen who had lost his grandmother to cancer. The best ideas often do not originate in the C-suite. They come from the local people working closest with patients and with the community.

What drives your workplace motivation?

Two things: one is that I was poor, which helps me empathize with people who are suffering. The second is my Christian faith. I was born and raised in a diverse, lower-middle-class neighborhood in California’s Bay Area. During my high school years, we lived well below the poverty line. I remember what it was like to get medications at a homeless shelter because we had no access to healthcare. I went to a private college, but was on every grant, scholarship, and financial aid I could find to make it through. I promised that if I could ever get out of poverty, that if I was ever able to end up with an education and some professional influence, I would leverage those resources for the common good. Justice is one of my core values. I take literally the call to serve the orphan, the widow, the poor, the oppressed, the wounded, and the foreigner. I could work in an inner city, or I could work in a rural, frontier setting, as long as there is need.

What guidance can you offer to young professionals considering rural hospital leadership?

Develop mentoring relationships. Listen to your mentors and respect their time. If they are willing to share their wisdom with you, remember that they are not your therapist. Thank them for their support and follow up by email, explaining how you applied their advice.

Before I left for work, from 6:30 to 7:30 in the morning, I would give them a call and say, ‘My name is Benjamin Anderson and I’m a 29-year-old MBA from Dallas, Texas, and I want to be like you when I grow up. What do I do?’

Before I learned of the CEO position in Ashland, I committed to cold-calling hospital CEOs in Kansas for 90 days. Before I left for work, from 6:30 to 7:30 in the morning, I would give them a call and say, “My name is Benjamin Anderson and I’m a 29-year-old MBA from Dallas, Texas, and I want to be like you when I grow up. What do I do?” To my surprise, they actually talked to me and gave me meaningful coaching. There were very few millennials asking these 60-something folks for advice, so they were more than willing to help me.

There are undeniable virtues one should have. Three of them are compassion, a strong work ethic, and “teachability.” There is nothing that replaces hard work, and compassion is essential in this industry. But the rarest of the three is teachability, which requires humility. It is more than a willingness to accept occasional rebuke and making a conscious effort to improve. It is the conscious act of seeking out wisdom from others; asking for feedback on personal performance, communication, and character; and then making necessary changes with gratitude.