Small towns and small-town hospitals are familiar territory for Cheri Barton, who stepped in earlier this month as the new chief executive officer at Hillsboro Community Hospital.
Prior to arriving, Barton held a similar position for the past three years at the Seiling (Okla.) Community Hospital, a general medical and surgical hospital in a community of around 875.
Add to that a stint in Oswego, with less than 2,000 people, and Ironton, Mo., with less than 1,400, and a pattern seems to emerge.
“I prefer small towns,” Barton said. “I like the community atmosphere. When you walk in the grocery store, you know everyone. That has its good points and bad, but just being able to care for people you know and care about is important to me.”
Barton’s bias started early.
“I grew up in Ellington, Mo., a town of about a thousand folks,” she said. “I’m the daughter of a Baptist preacher.”
Barton left Ellington to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Southeast Missouri State University. But it wasn’t long before her home town tracked her down.
“I had gone to nursing school and was working in a 130-bed hospital in the emergency department,” said Barton, a registered nurse. “My hometown hospital called and said, ‘It’s time for you to come home.’”
She accepted the position of director of nurses, but soon found herself in a challenging situation.
“The hospital was nearly closing at that point and time,” she said. “It was my job to keep that from happening. That sounds kind of grandiose, but it really was.”
The situation came to a head when the president of the board made a unilateral decision to shut it down.
“I, along with seven other staff, stayed without getting paid for several weeks,” Barton said. “A group of doctors started managing the hospital, and they were able to reimburse us our wages and keep the hospital from closing.
“We went from nearly closing to an average daily census of eight while I was there, and I went from director of nursing to administrator of that hospital.”
Barton stayed in that role for about nine years before accepting a similar position through HMC/CAH Consolidate Inc. at Oswego in 2007.
Barton has become comfortable in the role of chief decision-maker.
“I like being able to effect change and making certain that all aspects are covered,” she said. “I understand the clinical side of things and the business side of things.”
Her career path may have helped prepare Barton for her new assignment in Hillsboro, which is in the midst of transitions in medical staffing generally, as well as public concern about the future of the hospital itself.
“Every little hospital has its own unique challenges, but basically (my job is) making certain everything is done correctly and patient care is first and foremost,” she said.
Barton said her first two priorities are to stabilize the medical staff and increase services to the community.
A key part of her strategy is to be visible in the community and solicit input from others.
“I want to make certain that my face is seen and recognized,” Barton said. “I have an open-door policy. I love feedback from the community, good or bad.”
As for her management style, Barton doesn’t see herself as a top-down leader.
“I like to develop a team atmosphere, making certain that everyone communicates effectively,” she said.
Barton wanted to assure residents that she likes what she has seen so far about Hillsboro Community Hospital.
“You have a beautiful hospital—this is a very nice facility,” she said. “I do see a lot of potential here. You have a solid base to grow from.
“You already have specialty doctors coming in,” she added. “In the hospital I just came from, we had just one speciality doctor coming in, and it was very difficult to grow.”
Barton has found a house in Hillsboro. Her husband, Kenny, has a job in the lead mines in Missouri and raises beef on the farm they own there.
“His job is a Monday-through-Thursday job, so he comes and sees me on the weekends,” she said.
The Bartons have two grown sons in their mid to late 20s who live in neighboring states. Mom is anticipating the family will soon expand.
“Hopefully, both of my kids will be getting married next year,” she said with a smile. “I’ve been waiting for grandkids.”