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Duce Interview with John R. Heer, Jr. '85

A Conversation with 2014 Duce Award Recipient John R. Heer, Jr., '85, FACHE 

By Elizabeth Ford BA '93, MS-HCAD '96 

Recently, I had the privilege of speaking with John R. Heer, Jr. '85, FACHE, the recipient of the 2014 Dean Duce Award. Our conversation was brief but it had a positive and lasting impact on me. John's work and life philosophy is inspiring and is a model for other HCAD students and graduates to follow in the challenging yet rewarding field of health care administration. John and his wife, Pollyanna, attended the Duce Award Dinner in Chicago on March 17 and were pleased to reconnect with alumni, faculty and guests and to meet the HCAD students beginning their careers in the evolving field of health care administration. The following exchange reminds us that John represents the finest that Trinity's HCAD program has to offer to this worthy profession. 

Ford: Congratulations on receiving the 2014 Duce Award! During your leadership as President and CEO of North Mississippi Health Services, the institution was honored with the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award 2012 in the Health Care Category. North Mississippi Health Center, the flagship hospital and referral center in the NMHS system, was honored with a health care category Baldrige Award in 2006. This is the third time that you have been connected with a Baldrige-winning organization. What is your key to such success? 

Heer: Thank you. I believe that it comes down to three core principles: Focus, Discipline and Execution. Over the years, I have found that many health care organizations strive for excellence through developing program after program, initiative after initiative. Most often, after a period of time, the employees lose interest and, ultimately, confidence in the program which can have detrimental effects on their alliance toward those in leadership. I have learned that effective change comes from leadership and flows through the organization. Having a sound Mission, Vision, Values and Critical Success Factors are vital to overall organizational success. The order of the five Critical Success Factors is critically important. In my work, I have found that People, Service, Quality, Financial and Growth, in that order, form the model for the greatest long-term success. These factors are the hallmarks of leadership. In fact, I strive to adhere to the best practices of Alignment and Deployment, both of which are inherent in the Baldrige Criteria. 

Ford: What was the best piece of advice you received prior to taking on your most recent role as President and CEO of North Mississippi Health Services? 

Heer: Focusing on people should be the top priority above all. That is why they hired me in this role and following that advice myself has brought great rewards, personally and professionally. 

Ford: How did Trinity's Health Care Administration program prepare you in this dynamic and rewarding field? 

Heer: I believe that the program not only provided a good theoretical background through coursework but offered a way to put theory into practical application through the residency requirement prior to graduation. Not many health care administration graduate programs these days include a residency which is unfortunate. Through my coursework, I received excellent understanding of the workings of hospitals: clinical, policy, government, statistics and so forth that was then applied through residency experience. I have never regretted going through the program and my hope is that no student will. A great education balanced with practical experience is important to succeed in this field. 

Ford: Did the field of Health Care Administration end up being what you thought it would be when you were a graduate student? 

Heer: Not at all. When I first began the program in the 80s, we studied the intricacies of hospitals per se, not health care. The conversation has shifted from "fixing" to "preventing illness." Physicians have become much more aligned with health care organizations. There has been much movement along the horizontal and vertical spectrum in recent years in terms of health care delivery systems to now include groups of hospitals and clusters of health care resources outside the hospital walls. 

Ford: How has the industry changed from when you first entered the Health Care Administration field until now? 

Heer: As I mentioned, the vertical and horizontal integration of health care delivery systems has become more focused on prevention and taking care of patients in an outpatient setting. There will be many more opportunities for health care administrators to effectively lead nursing homes and retirement facilities, especially given the trending demographics in our society.

Ford: This can be a very demanding profession. How have you stayed motivated during the toughest times of your career? 

Heer: Lots of prayer. I strongly believe that the answers to prayer have helped me to be ever mindful of why I am in this profession in the first place. Caring for people, both patients and employees, is what is most important and the way we treat them every step of the way while in our care is essential to our Mission. 

Ford: In terms of your career, what are the accomplishments you are most proud of? 

Heer: The recurring theme of my greatest accomplishments has been the positive impact my work has had on individuals. I greatly appreciate the awards, accolades and other recognitions that I have received during my career but to be honest, those are external recognitions of what I wish to achieve in my life each day. 

Ford: What is your favorite leadership or management book or program? 

Heer: I think the book that has had the greatest impact on my profession and in my life in general is The Servant: A Simple Story About the True Essence of Leadership written by James C. Hunter. It serves as an instructional manual of management success in work and in life. The book is about John Daily, a businessman whose outwardly successful life is spiraling out of control. He reluctantly attends a leadership retreat at a remote Benedictine monastery. John learns that the true foundation of leadership is not power, but authority, which is built upon relationships, love, service, and sacrifice. 

Ford: What advice would you share with current HCAD students and residents? 

Heer: I would suggest that our students and residents keep the three keys of success - Focus, Discipline and Execution - in mind. And of course, always keep people's best interests as the motivation of their daily work. 

Ford: From your perspective, how different is health care going to look in 15 years? 

Heer: I think health care will look completely different. It will be much more outcome oriented. Because so many individuals are or will soon be insured, the prevention model will be the only way our country will be able to afford health care. It is a lot less expensive to prevent illness rather than treat illness. The challenge for those in leadership positions, including health care administrators, in the future will be how to assure patient compliance without meddling in their daily lives. Society must change dangerous habits and behaviors such as poor diet, smoking and alcohol consumption through healthy motivation to prevent poor outcomes. Moderation and balance will be important keys for success.

Ford: What advice would you have for the HCAD program as it positions itself for the future? 

Heer: Stay focused on the essential elements of the program. The residency component offers an invaluable experience for students before graduation. Our students receive both the theory and the practice of health care administration which gives them a step up among their cohorts from other programs. I was a guest speaker for the On Campus HCAD students several years ago and was impressed with their knowledge and dedication. Keeping informed and engaged in the evolving health care environment is critical for the program's future success. 

Ford: What are your plans for your next chapter? 

Heer: My wife and I are spending a lot of time praying as we formulate our plans. We are talking to several groups. Consulting is on the table but we are in the process of developing ways to do that without the downside of travel. We remain optimistic that our next chapter will provide us with joy and promise. 

Ford: What do you enjoy doing when not working? 

Heer: In addition to spending time with my family, I enjoy yard work and woodworking. Anything that I can help make better brings me great satisfaction, especially in the short term. The field of health care administration requires much patience and perseverance, but it is definitely worth the effort. 

Ford: Thank you for your time and service in making significant improvements in the lives of others through your contributions to health care administration. Trinity is grateful to call you one of its graduates and to have your confidence and support. 


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