Hospital loses a good one

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 14, 2007

The new economy of small towns is the product of more than big-box stores and mass merchandisers.

Certainly, the “Wal-Martization” of communities like Franklin is a big reason that small-town economies work a lot differently — and rarely more effectively — than they did 30 years ago. Equally profound in its influence, though, has been the trend toward chain ownership of certain community institutions whose leaders were pillars of the old economy. Banks, hospitals and, yes, newspapers come immediately to mind — not to mention paper mills.

Back in the day, when a community decision of any magnitude needed to be made, your local bank presidents, the newspaper publisher, the hospital administrator and a handful of other prominent businessmen would go behind closed doors and make it. The mayor, if he wasn’t one of the above, might be invited as a courtesy. The decisions were often the wrong ones, and lots of capable people were excluded from the process, but things got done — and usually pretty quickly.

Gradually, though, these locally institutions began to be bought by out-of-town companies. Instead of majority stockholders, their leaders have become hired managers, usually brought in from elsewhere, whose mission is to achieve quick results, impress their bosses and earn a promotion — goals in direct conflict with the long-term health of the communities these institutions serve.

They stay a year or two and move on. The result in many towns has been a critical leadership vacuum with serious economic, political and civic consequences.

I say all of that to say this: Departing Southampton Memorial Hospital CEO Sean Dardeau is the exception when it comes to “hired guns.” The hospital, and the community at large, have benefited immensely from Dardeau’s leadership.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that my wife and Dardeau share an employer, Tennessee-based Community Health Systems Inc., which owns the hospitals here and in Petersburg, where Rhonda works. Her extensive knowledge of health care generally — and CHS, the company, specifically — informed my own assessment of Southampton Memorial and its CEO. Rhonda didn’t know Sean before she moved to Franklin, but it took just one visit to SMH for her to conclude what I had suspected: that our community has a fine hospital with good leadership.

Perfect? No way. We can debate for days the pros and cons of CHS’ ownership of Southampton Memorial and whether, on balance, it has been a good thing or bad thing for the community. The answer is a mixture.

But know this as well: The days of community-owned and -operated hospitals are over. The handful still out there will eventually be sold or leased.

Local governments lack the expertise and resources to run hospitals in today’s complex health-care environment. And the money that private companies are willing to pay for a hospital is too tempting for communities struggling to retire debt and keep property taxes down.

Given the certainty of chain ownership, a community can only hope for the best when it comes to leadership.

Dardeau, who will move next month to a bigger hospital in Alabama, worked like a man who was after more than a promotion. In his three-plus years at SMH, he improved the hospital’s physical plant, upgraded its equipment and technology, and created a new culture of customer service. He raised the hospital’s profile in the community, mainly through personal involvement. For a guy who knew he wouldn’t be here forever, he worked tirelessly on behalf of good community causes.

His wife, Karen, has been equally involved — with the YMCA, her church and other organizations that have benefited from her energy and vibrant spirit.

The Dardeaus, in a short time, had a big impact on their town. Franklin is better for having known them.