Same team, new coach

Heinemann steps into administrator’s role with a Dawson-like approach to leadership

Don Heinemann takes over as top administrator of Blount Memorial Hospital on July 1. Joe Dawson has held the top position at the hospital for 25 years. He will be retiring on June 30.

Photo by Jolanda Jansma

Don Heinemann takes over as top administrator of Blount Memorial Hospital on July 1. Joe Dawson has held the top position at the hospital for 25 years. He will be retiring on June 30.

Blount Memorial Hospital Assistant Administrator Don Heinemann will become administrator on July 1. It will be a job he trained 25 years to do.

Heinemann was the first person Joe Dawson hired when he took the job as administrator in 1985. Heinemann has worked as assistant administrator for a quarter of a century.

But it was a job he almost didn’t even pursue.

While finishing up his administrative residency at Roanoke Memorial Hospital in Roanoke, Va., Heinemann heard about Dawson’s promotion to administrator and his need for an assistant administrator from a friend. The friend encouraged Heinemann to at least call Dawson for an interview.

“I was about ready to accept a job with another company but decided to make the phone call. I had never been to Maryville and didn’t know anything about Blount Memorial Hospital or Joe Dawson,” he said. “When I called the main number for the hospital, instead of an operator, Joe Dawson answered the phone. I thought, ‘Wow, this is a small hospital.’ It turned out Maryville had 8 inches snow, and the lady at the switchboard had been there all night. Dawson was working the switchboard while she took a break.”

Heinemann drove down the following Sunday and interviewed on Monday. “I liked Maryville and Joe Dawson. I felt like he was someone I could work for and learn from. I grew up with Joe in this hospital, but I didn’t have a clue when I took this job that I would stay more than a few years,” he said. “The longer I worked here, the more Maryville has become home, and Blount Memorial Hospital has become home to me. Once I had children, this was where I wanted to be, raise children and live.”

Dawson’s management style and the culture it created was vastly different from what Heinemann had learned in Roanoke.

“Roanoke was a 700-bed teaching hospital, and this was a medium-sized community hospital,” Heinemann said. “But the people were so warm and friendly, and it was much more of family atmosphere. That felt good.”

Heinemann said his leadership style has evolved over time. “At the hospital I came from in Roanoke, the administrator was very much a centralized manager. He was the boss, in charge and made the final decisions,” he said. “When I came here, Mr. Dawson’s management style was much more team-oriented. All levels of the hospital medical staff, administrative staff and board worked as a team. I saw the value of that when I first came here. I really liked that style. Everyone participates and buys in on decisions we make.”

Heinemann said that the way the board, administrative and medical staff work together will mean a smoother transition, even though they Dawson is retiring. “A lot of the same team is in place. Really, the most important ingredient of having a great hospital is having a great medical staff. I think Blount County is very blessed to have physicians who have chosen to come here. Many of these physicians could have gone anywhere. They are some of the best,” he said.

Heinemann said the other piece of this equation are the 2,200 employees. “It is a very caring and loving attitude that our employees and caregivers across the hospital -- in every position -- bring to this organization,” he said. “The people are great. The team here is a reflection of the Blount County I saw when I came to Maryville, a reflection that made me want to live here.”

As for his 25-year tutelage, Heinemann said at the very beginning of his tenure, Dawson gave him projects to be responsible for. “I learned about this hospital and this community through that work. It has been a gradual progression over 25 years here,” he said. “Mr. Dawson has given me a lot of encouragement and support and more and more responsibility, leading me to where I am today.”

Heinemann said the board has been very supportive throughout the years. “The hospital really is a team effort. It starts with our board of directors. This is a county hospital, owned by the citizens of Blount County. If you live in Blount County, you own a share of Blount Memorial Hospital,” he said. “The nine board members are representative of folks in Blount County. We’ve got a great board with members who are very talented and dedicated. We have proven leadership from the administrative staff to manage the day-to-day operations, and they are very supportive and encouraging in doing that.”

Heinemann said Blount Memorial is a true community hospital that sees everyone regardless of their ability to pay. The hospital has evolved as the community has grown. “It has been fun watching the hospital continue to grow and serve more and more people. Basically, the more Blount County grows, the more services and specialties we can justify and support here,” he said. “When you go home at the end of the day, it has been nice to know that you work at a place that has a charitable mission to take care of everybody.”

Heinemann said the biggest challenge facing all hospitals across the county are the same. “Our country is facing an aging population with Baby Boomers. In the next 15 to 20 years, the number of people over 60 is going to double in the U.S., and those are the people who consume health care resources more than anyone else. Part of what all the talk about health care reform has been about is how our nation is going to take care of services for these folks. How are we going to pay for it? That is what all this healthcare reform is about,” he said.

Heinemann said hospitals are going to have to figure out how to find new and more efficient ways to take care of people while also cutting costs. But there is opportunity where there is challenge, he said.

“The exciting part about it is the interest in health care careers. In the next 20 or 30 years any job in healthcare is going to be a great opportunity. There is going to be growing interest for every area in healthcare, including physicians, nurses and all kinds of ancillary and support staff,” he said. “In some way those trends are scary, because there is more pressure on payment (for those services), but at the same time, it is exciting to see healthcare go through change. I like being in the middle of that change.”

Heinemann said at Blount Memorial Hospital, it is not as difficult as some would expect to balance the needs and desires of the staff and physicians with the needs and desires of the community. “Really, everybody - the medical staff and our employees who work in the hospital and our community want same thing. They all want great hospitals with competent and caring people taking care of them,” he said.

The incoming administrator said the challenge is in prioritizing what is important as far as providing expanded specialties, services or deciding which new pieces of equipment to add. “With everybody at the table wanting the same thing, it is a matter of working through the process and prioritizing what the next move is,” he said. “For us, it is not a matter of ‘if’ we add something, but ‘when,’ and it is a prioritization in how we do that.”

Whenever times are tough, the rumors start that the county ought to sell the hospital. While the trend in the last 20 years has seen hospitals merge into health systems, Heinemann said he didn’t see the need for such a move at Blount Memorial Hospital.

“The board of directors here feel as long as the hospital can be independent and provide quality service and be fiscally strong, they feel the hospital is better served and serves Blount County better if the control is local and overseen by people in Blount County as opposed to people outside of Blount County,” he said. “We certainly think as long as we continue to grow and provide great service and maintain independence, we will continue to serve Blount County better by being independent and by being a Blount County-owned hospital.”

Heinemann said there are benefits to having a county-owned hospital.

“If you look at any community asset in Blount County, whether it’s a library or the Greenbelt Park or the school systems, there are definite advantages to being owned and controlled by Blount County because all of those assets are overseen by representatives of Blount County,” he said. “It is your neighbors who are on the hospital board. That is probably the biggest strength. You have your neighbors overseeing the hospital that is serving your county.”

Heinemann said Dawson has been a mentor and a friend first and then a boss. “It feels good coming to work everyday. The last 25 years, I’ve always felt Joe cared about me personally, not just in my role as assistant administrator,” he said.

Heinemann said what stands out about Dawson most is that -- at the end of the day -- he always puts the patients and families first. “Every decision we make, every time there is a conflict to settle or decision to be made, he always decides by what is best for the patients and families,” he said. “He has been tireless in setting that as the culture of this hospital. We’re all here to take care of patients and families first.”

Heinemann holds a bachelor of science degree in business from Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., and a master of science degree in health care administration from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.

Prior to joining the Blount Memorial leadership team, Heinemann was an administrative resident, administrative intern and evening administrator at Roanoke Memorial Hospital (Carillion Health System) in Roanoke, Va

Heinemann, 51, has two children. Daughter, Sarah, is a rising senior, and son, Nic, is a rising sophomore at Maryville High School.

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