I’m really proud of our entire team of employees, volunteers, and physicians for stepping up to this challenge. We have accepted the challenge and are ready to get going. — Ronnie Dean
After only a few months on the job, Ronald “Ronnie” Dean, CEO at South Georgia Medical Center (SGMC), says he feels “right at home” in Valdosta. Since starting in October, Dean has quickly immersed himself as part of the SGMC team and Valdosta community.
After an extensive nationwide search, the Hospital Authority of Valdosta and Lowndes County selected Dean for his executive knowledge, passion for leadership, and years of experience.
With a diverse background in hospital management, Dean’s wide range of professional responsibilities have spanned more than 36 years and include hospital operations, clinical service line development, external business development, physician practice acquisitions, long-range planning, regional network development, regulatory affairs, and joint ventures.
The Dothan, Alabama native, who began his career as a respiratory therapist, spent 33 years working for Southeast Alabama Medical Center in various positions, most recently as vice president of operations. In 2016, Dean transitioned to CEO at Troy Regional Medical Center, where he implemented a successful turnaround strategy to improve the hospital’s overall performance.
SGaMag: Having always lived and worked in Alabama, how are you adjusting to Valdosta?
We’ve had a great start. When I arrived, I really didn’t know what to expect. Everyone I had met along the way seemed to be nice, kind, and inviting, but we really didn’t know what our experience would be like. But having been here for a while, I can honestly say we have identified with what makes the area a great place to live, remarkably kind people, both in the community and at SGMC. And because of that, we’ve had a great start in Valdosta. My wife, Sue, and I have enjoyed everyone we’ve met and found the people of Valdosta, Lowndes County, and the region to be extremely friendly and welcoming to the community. We have been accepted and have truly fallen in love with Valdosta. I believe we have found a home in Valdosta.
The people at SGMC have been really, really great, and have been just as inviting. As you know, the system employs over 2,500 across four campuses, and we enjoy having 375 plus physicians on our staff. I can say we have met some of the most remarkable people at SGMC. And what I identify with most is that each one of these individuals has chosen to work and serve at SGMC in their respective roles. And each one has personal and professional dreams, goals, and aspirations for themselves and their families, and SGMC serves to help them satisfy these goals. And now, I’m a part of that…a role I take seriously. When I couple the opportunity to work alongside this team with the purpose SGMC serves in the lives of this community and the region, I simply feel honored to be here and to have been selected to join South Georgia Medical Center.
SGaMag: With a productive and successful career at two healthcare facilities in Alabama, what drew you to the position at SGMC?
SGMC and the South Georgia Health System of hospitals services and programs are part of a highly complex health delivery system. Having spent over 33 years in a similarly complex system, I was initially attracted to the idea that I might serve in another regional medical center with tertiary capabilities. I had experienced a great career at Southeast Alabama Medical Center, and like the opportunity to move to Troy, Alabama as CEO of Troy Regional Medical Center, I identified with the challenge it presented but more so with the idea I might be able to help the hospital and the community realize the health delivery service they desired.
While in Troy, we enjoyed the results of a successful turnaround, and now Troy Regional Medical Center is on a path of growth and prosperity. Our team accomplished quite a bit in Troy, something I am very proud of. In some way, I felt like my purpose for being there was served. And when contemplating the South Georgia Medical Center opportunity, some of the same thoughts prevailed. Perhaps, I could help the leadership and community realize what they wanted out of their health delivery system in South Georgia. And then, one conversation led to another, and my interest grew, and the board’s interest grew. And now, I’m here as a member of a great community and remarkably talented SGMC team.
SGaMag: How do you think your professional experience has prepared you for the opportunities and challenges at SGMC?
When I started my career in healthcare, the furthest thing from my mind was becoming a hospital CEO. As a Respiratory Therapist, I identified with the idea I could help people feel better. And somewhere along the way, others identified in me that I could help in other ways by taking on management and leadership responsibilities. And through this, my professional experiences, roles, and responsibilities grew. And by way of expanded roles, I assembled a unique set of skills that are transferable and have been tested over time. My love for serving people and being a valued purpose in another’s life married nicely with the skills I learned from others and, of course, through successes and failures along the way. In some way, I think all of us are being ideally prepared to serve at some other level, whether we know it or not. I think the same has been true for me. This belief causes me to look forward to assisting with the challenges and opportunities SGMC faces and the challenge of leading the evolution of our South Georgia’s health delivery system.
SGaMag: In your first few months at SGMC, you have engaged in a series of listening sessions, what have you learned from these conversations?
What I’ve learned most is everyone I talked with wants South Georgia Medical Center to win. And winning means SGMC is the best place to receive care and services; SGMC is the best place to practice medicine; and, SGMC is the best place to work. Everyone wants our hospital and system to be trusted, to be safe, kind, and advanced in our capabilities, and to be easily accessible, always. And in the end, all I’ve spoken with wants SGMC to be a hospital and health delivery system they are proud of; to be their unquestioned hospital of choice such there is no debate about where one should go for care.
These conversations have been helpful and are appreciated because they serve as a natural first step in identifying what is desired and needed. Now we are moving through a planning process to meet these needs and expectations by becoming highly focused on what can make the greatest initial impact. I’m really proud of our entire team of employees, volunteers, and physicians for stepping up to this challenge. We have accepted the challenge and are ready to get going.
SGaMag: How would you describe your management style?
I consider my approach to leading people and managing change participative and engaging. I operate on the premise that trust is the great enabler. When one is trusted, others are much more likely to follow and embrace change and challenges. Trust fuels engagement of others, and engagement enables alignment on what matters most. And when a group of people trust each other and are engaging one another in meaningful discussion, progress toward the goals occur. The team then excels at what they are trying to accomplish, and individuals on the team and our patients, guests, employees, and physicians win, and winning is contagious!
Also, I like to keep things simple, not too terribly lofty. I’ve found when we narrow the focus to a vital few priorities, we tend to remain on track, and progress is more likely. This is often quite challenging with the volume of opportunities to improve that come our way. But when we do keep our focus and we underpin our leadership decisions with a great “why,” the why explains the purpose for decisions and direction that leads to clarity about “what” we are trying to accomplish. When this happens, the team rallies around the objective. It’s at this time when the patient, guest, physician, and employee realize the great experience we want SGMC to be known for.
SGaMag: What do you see as a few of the challenges hospitals face today, especially those in rural communities?
I think the top three challenges we face are talent acquisition and management, removing waste and becoming highly efficient and reliable, and remaining centered on why we exist.
Attracting the very best talent is our number one challenge. We have an outstanding group of nurses, physicians, and professionals with diverse backgrounds and training. Today we can add 20 or more additional physicians in practices and roles. The same for nurses and other professionals. But first, we need to focus on how to keep the good ones we currently have. So this challenge is about creating and maintaining an organizational culture that speaks SGMC is the “best place to work and the best place to practice medicine.” It is imperative because there are so many choices for this very special workforce to choose from.
Another great challenge for the health care system of today is to remove waste and become highly efficient and reliable in all we do. Waste comes in many different forms; wasted money spent, wasted time, wasted supplies, wasted steps. Waste finds its way into the system in many different ways, and it has a direct impact on our patients, guests, physicians, and employees. It consumes precious and limited resources that could be used to satisfy other needs, and it prevents us from being the highly reliable organization we desire and need to be to the community we serve. Rapid process improvement is the key to removing waste at every level, and we have begun to focus our collective efforts on this need.
And last I think we as hospital and health industry leaders are challenged to remain centered on why we exist. Mergers, acquisitions, and other market dynamics are occurring at an even faster pace, and sometimes the “why” or “for what benefit” question is hard to answer. Hospitals and health delivery systems are very large businesses that are seemingly even more regulated than before. And, with constant change in how hospitals and physicians are reimbursed, rising costs and the rapid change in technology and health delivery mechanisms, it’s easy for leaders to take their eye off of why we truly exist. Yet the one and only true reason we exist is to serve and care for our patients and do it remarkably well each time and always.
SGaMag: You mentioned talent management, how is SGMC working to recruit and retain a viable healthcare workforce?
Recruiting and retaining top talent starts with being focused and concerned about the team of talented people we already have. This starts with me and a daily leadership focus on how we relate to and serve one another in a positive manner. From this, an organizational culture of respect and engagement emanates. I simply believe if we want to be the best place to work and the best place to practice medicine, we will engage our employees and physicians about what matters most to them.
A good part of each of my day is being out of my office and with our nursing care teams and other professionals and physicians in their work areas and offices. Through this effort, I identify with their needs and challenges. I’ve always said, and I truly believe this, “If you want to know how to solve a problem, gather up a few of your trusted people, and they will more times than not tell you with accuracy how to solve the problem.” So far, I’ve been pleased with our attempts, and although I’ve not met everyone yet, I’m well on the way. An example of an organized effort to interact with our nurses is our “Cup of Joe with the CEO” series, where I have been able to have small groups of nurses meet over a cup of coffee and hear them speak as a group about what matters most to them. We’ve just started. But the few times we hosted the groups, it’s been a very special time for me, and our participants have shared a lot of insightful information. Our employees and physicians can be very helpful in charting a course for our future if we will listen. If nothing else, we want to show them respect and let them know we value their opinion. And I think that’s an important trait of a good organizational culture, an organization I’d like to be a part of.
SGaMag: How will SGMC go about shifting its focus in becoming more patient-centered?
To me, patient-centered means all we do is about delivering appropriate care, at the appropriate time, by the appropriate person, with appropriate levels of engagement of the patient and their family or loved one throughout the care experience, and doing this always, not sometimes. To accomplish this, we have begun by establishing our top four organizational priorities and have cascaded those down through the organization by setting measurable goals that support four priorities: unimpeachable credentials of our team, an unsurpassed patient experience, unequaled access to care, and unmatched efficiency in all we do.
When we talk about unimpeachable credentials, what we mean is that our safety and quality credentials, results and track record should be indisputable. When we achieve this, we create the safest place for people to receive care. We want to be the safest hospital in the nation, as evidenced by our results.
An unsurpassed patient/guest experience is simply about how we make people feel while they receive the care they need, regardless. By focusing on the idea that we are not only here to deliver an expected outcome, which is first and foremost, but also on the fact that we can provide a service environment that is about compassion, kindness, dignity, and respect for each individual such they know we care about them. Unsurpassed is about being recognized as the very best at how we make others feel while receiving care.
And when we speak of unequaled access to care, we want to define our system of care as the easiest to access, without delay or unnecessary steps, hurdles or roadblocks. To be patient-centered is also to act with expediency, urgency, and discipline and invite all who need our care into the system.
The last of our top four priorities is to be unmatched in our efficiency in all we do. Being unmatched in efficiency is a concerted effort to eliminate waste for our patients and guests, for example, wasted time waiting. Removing unnecessary steps in a process, and streamlining how we do what we do, transfers to the patient and guest. When we achieve all four of these things, we become more patient-centered….we become the best place to receive patient care.
I am really pleased with our team’s genuine interest in their patients’ needs and how hard they work to serve their patients. What I hope to do overtime is bring a leadership focus on the patient and the needs of our care teams and provide the team support so they can realize these patient care priorities and goals and ultimately be recognized for the great work they do.
SGaMag: What is one example of how SGMC is providing patients with a more positive hospital experience?
My top operational improvement priority is our emergency room patient experience. The first of this year, we brought on new physicians and new physician leadership in the ER. Our leadership team is now evaluating our efficiencies and has begun to install new measures to better meet the needs and patient experience expectations of our emergency room guest. For example, we have put in place a few changes in how we care for those who have to wait, one of which is lobby rounding to make sure everyone in the lobby knows we know they are hurting and need to be seen, that they are waiting, and that we care enough to periodically check on them and update them about what is causing delays. Our goal would be to never have anyone wait. A second measure that has been undertaken is the addition of more providers in the Express Care rooms to lower the amount of time from arrival to seeing a provider. When we increase efficiency in this area, we free up rooms for our higher acuity emergency patients. Measuring, evaluating, and engaging our employees, physicians, and guests is the fastest route to the improvements our community wants to see. We’ve just begun and there’s much more we can and will do. We have a great team of nurses, physicians, and other professionals that truly want to serve and do so with kindness and efficiency. They simply need our leadership support, and from there, we will become much better across the entire system, unsurpassed when we focus on what matters most.
SGaMag: With additional healthcare options available, how is SGMC going to reaffirm its role as a regional hospital?
To reaffirm our role as the communities’ destination for care, we have to win the community’s trust. I believe we will do this by being consistent and highly reliable in the experience we create, in the outcomes of care we deliver and by expanding our capabilities and reach. The end product of our work will be when the community says it is proud of us as their hospital; this is very important to me. People in our community deserve to have a hospital they are proud of. They have a choice, and they can choose to travel elsewhere. But my desire is that no one would have to choose another location for their care and that our SGMC team across all locations becomes the first choice for care within the communities we serve.
We can and will also distinguish ourselves by expanding capabilities and become more capable than others in what we can deliver. We already provide specialty services that are not offered elsewhere and do so extremely well. We should expand based on the needs of the region. In doing so, we serve unmet needs that cause people to travel, and we give ourselves the chance to become the region’s destination for specialty care that can’t be responsibly provided elsewhere in the region. This is a direction we will chart. Capability, quality of care, and how we make others feel is what we want for the communities we serve, and it’s what people in the community are telling me is desired and needed.
Again, I’m very proud of our SGMC team. They are ready, willing, and up for this challenge. I’m excited about what more we can deliver for the region of people we serve. And, I look forward to a bright future for the SGMC health delivery system and all we have the opportunity to care for along the way.