Joe Dawson began navigating the halls of Blount Memorial Hospital as an orderly working weekends and in the summer during his college years.
His father was a physician and his older brother would become one, but this orderly, though he liked the hospital environment and helping patients, decided doctoring was not on his chart.
He figured he could still serve patients as an administrator, and he has led Blount Memorial since 1985.
His connection with his community and his strategic thinking have been key to Blount Memorial’s growth in every aspect, including one that cannot be seen or quantified - respect.
Dawson set his course to become the hospital’s administrator after quizzing one of its previous leaders about the job and deciding patient care was his calling.
“I got interested in patient care,” he says, “and thought I could do it through running a business.”
Dawson is a native of Blount County, having graduated from Maryville High School and Maryville College. Despite being atop the hospital hierarchy, he eschews white shirts and neckties, opting for less formal attire, which he believes makes him more approachable and accessible.
Dawson’s 24 years of leadership have seen the hospital occupy a larger footprint, not only in its physical facility, but as the hospital of choice for Blount County residents. Twenty years ago, Blount Memorial placed fifth on that scale and now scores at the top.
In 2009, Blount Memorial Hospital ranked No. 1 in Tennessee and in the top 5 percent in the nation for coronary intervention procedures and received a coveted 5-star rating for cardiology services, something only 15 percent of the nation’s hospitals achieved, according to HealthGrades.
“We’ve worked really hard to become a better hospital,” Dawson says. “We realized that we had to be as good as the Knoxville hospitals and be perceived as such.”
The hospital’s growth, he says, reflects the community it serves.
“Maryville was just kind of growing up,” he says, “and our hospital set out to improve itself. I’m proud of what we have accomplished, but we still have a lot of things to do.”
Most recently, Blount Memorial opened a state-of-the-art Cancer Center and Breast Health Center, and Dawson says the future could hold entry into open heart surgery, neurosurgery and neonatology. But those projects must await clear evidence that they are needed in the community and that they can eventually pay for themselves, he said.
Blount Memorial is a not-for-profit organization owned by Blount County.
Robert Redwine, president of the hospital’s board of trustees, where he’s served since 1987, praises Dawson’s deep roots in the community, the depth of his commitment to the hospital’s mission and his skills as a communicator. He’s equally at ease with his board, hospital staff, the medical community and general public, Redwine says.
“I think folks look at him and see him as the face of Blount Memorial, and that’s been a good face,” Redwine says. “We have a hospital we can be proud and we can give a lot of credit for that to Joe.”
Dawson sees his job as running a business with primary emphasis on serving the patient.
He has preserved a handmade sign he first saw in the hospital decades ago that reads, “This hospital does not render service to collect money. But it must collect money to render service.” That sums up the hospital’s mission clearly and succinctly, he says, and he has subscribed to it faithfully.
Dawson admits to being apprehensive - profoundly so - about the federal government’s plans for health care reform.
“I’m having a hard time figuring out what’s coming down,” he says. But he fears that reform will mean fewer dollars coming into hospital coffers, which would place an added drain on resources and could delay growth.
He lauds Medicare as “a pretty good system, pretty well-run.”
TennCare, on the other hand, is “a disaster” and “a terrible experiment” that costs Blount Memorial $12 million a year in losses. It pays, he says, about 50 cents for every $1 of service provided and represents 12 percent of his business.
The program’s goal of providing coverage to more people was admirable, he says, but 15 years later, Blount Memorial still sees the same number of uninsured patients.
“I know we have to do something different,” he says, and expressed support for certain aspects of reform, including universal coverage, wellness and preventive care, as well as electronic medical records.
“But I am against taking it out of the hides of physicians and hospitals,” he adds.
He advocates those positions to lawmakers and others through local, state and national hospital industry organizations, including the Tennessee Hospital Association, the Hospital Alliance of Tennessee and the American Hospital Association. He has served as chairman of both state organizations, and is again serving on the executive committee of the THA.
When he’s not in a board room he may be found at a Southeastern Conference football game. He left the field in 2006 in need of a knee replacement and now serves as an instant replay official. An immune system compromised by leukemia resulted in him postponing the surgery, as had a spinal abscess.
Still, he brushes aside talk of retirement, saying he’ll work as “as long as they need me.”