Former Blue Devils defensive lineman Craig Owens is tackling even tougher challenges at Verde Valley Medical Center than he did on Duke University's football field in the early '80s.
Since becoming president and chief operating officer of the Cottonwood, Ariz., hospital in March 1998, Owens has dramatically strengthened Verde Valley's bottom line while orchestrating a $22 million expansion that has nearly doubled the facility's size.
Today, the 99-bed not-for-profit hospital has a 127,000-square-foot outpatient wing and a state-of-the-art cardiac catheterization lab-unusual for a facility of its size. Patient admissions are rising at double-digit rates, and Verde Valley's 6.3% operating margin is well above the average 1% margin for like-sized facilities, according to Moody's Investors Service.
"Craig was not only up for these challenges, he threw in several of his own," says Joseph Kortum, Verde Valley's chief executive officer. "He has been able to provide more with the same resources."
Owens, 36, has done so by focusing on the specific needs of the community, which is predominantly made up of seniors.
"The Verde Valley is largely a retirement destination. We've refocused our strategic plan on providing the appropriate service lines for this population," Owens says. "The better job we've done at meeting the community's needs, the less our residents have had to leave the area for services."
That's meant beefing up cardiology, orthopedics and oncology services. It's also meant making a few strategic sacrifices, such as Verde Valley's decision in 1999 to end subacute-care services, which were being sorely under-reimbursed by Medicare and already were provided by a number of other hospitals in the area.
The results have been impressive. Since 1998, Verde Valley's annual patient revenue has climbed 71% to $60 million in the fiscal year ended June 30. Its net profit has jumped 275% to $4.5 million during the same period.
Owens grew up in Erie, Pa., the son of a milkman and a secretary. When he wasn't playing sports, he usually had his nose in a book. "I probably spent a lot more time reading than most kids my age," Owens says.
The dual interest served him well. Owens eventually won a football scholarship to Duke University, Durham, N.C., which he says allowed him to attend a school that he otherwise might have been unable to afford. He earned a bachelor's degree in English and, in 1989, graduated with a master's degree in healthcare administration.
From there, Owens worked his way up through a number of facilities with both HCA and Humana, back when the managed-care giant still owned its own hospitals. Then, in 1994, he became associate administrator for Kingman Regional Medical Center in northwest Arizona, where he oversaw construction of a 36,000-square-foot medical office and a large wellness and rehabilitation center.
Owens proved his foresight at Kingman by leading a team of physicians, managers and staff in designing a new program to reduce medical errors through automation. The program was up and running years before the Institute of Medicine released its sobering report in late 1999 on the prevalence of medical errors in hospitals.
Today, he still works hard to persuade Verde Valley's 60 doctors to try new and more efficient ways to provide services that also upgrade patient care.
"The addition of Craig to our administrative staff has really, really helped in all aspects," says Alex Horchak, M.D., Verde Valley's past chief of staff. "Craig, being a younger administrator trained in administration from the get-go, really has a much better understanding of the day-to-day operations . . . and how he has to relate to the medical staff."