Eric Bour breezes into the conference room at Piedmont Newton County Hospital, right on time for his appointment, neither a minute early or a minute late. As the new CEO of the Covington hospital, barely in town for two months, the demand on his schedule is heavy, yet he gives the impression he has all time in the world for you, never once looking at his phone or sneaking a glance at his watch.
The task facing Bour (rhymes with four), is daunting and by any measure, he has his work cut out for him. Employment at the hospital is way down, ER wait times are too high and patient satisfaction needs a complete transfusion. There’s a lot riding on whether Bour succeeds: As the county’s fourth largest employer, with $85 million in revenue, any shifts at the hospital have a ripple effect on the local economy. The quality of the local hospital often factors into a business’s decisions when considering relocations.
In discussions with county officials, Bour recalled they told him, “It’s not that we have a bad relationship with the hospital; it’s that we don’t have any relationship, and thus rebuilding those relationships in Covington is the first thing that caught my eye.” Already, he has begun meeting with corporate leaders about health care needs and has plans to implement more community-involved functions.
On paper, it certainly appears that Piedmont Healthcare, which purchased the hospital two years ago, has found the right man. Previously, Bour ran Hillcrest Memorial Hospital near Greenville, South Carolina, where he engineered a 90 percent reduction in “leave without being seen” in the emergency department, a dramatic improvement in on-time start rate in the operating room, a large reduction in surgery turnover time, and strong revenue growth.
When he left, Hillcrest ranked above the national average in virtually every metric of patient experiences, according to the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers (HCAHPS), the data from which is available on Medicare.gov, which tracks all patients, not just those on Medicare. By comparison, Newton County’s hospital ranks below the state and national averages on every measurement. The survey perception, and does not reflect quality of health care delivery or outcomes. But perception, as the expression goes, is 90 percent of reality, and it’s that word of mouth of the patient experience—essentially, customer service—that can have an impact when people have an option or a company is considering relocating.
One of Bour’s first tasks was to keep the ambulance service as part of the hospital and beginning last week, the hospital began doubling the capacity of the emergency department, which is often packed cheek to jowl. The $10 million project was authorized prior to Bour’s arrival and with the ER greatly exceeding capacity, the 18-month job quickly became a priority.
Occupying a hospital’s C-suite was not on Bour’s horizon while growing up in Oxford, Pennsylvania, a town less than half the size of Covington. A college tour took him to New York on a cold, battleship-gray day, and shortly afterward to Emory University on a quintessential Georgia spring day, painted with blue sky, sunshine and flowers—and choice was easy. After graduating with a major in anthropology, Bour was accepted at Penn State College of Medicine and veered toward cardiothoracic surgery, then breast surgery, and he ended up specializing in bariatric surgery, a field in which he has been published and has performed approximately 3,000 procedures. Along the way, he earned an MBA and began casting his eyes on hospital management.
Bour has plenty on his plate, but hopes to soon return to more of the spare-time routine he had in Greenville, which involved nothing more than arising at 4:10 a.m. in order to be at his grueling CrossFit class, resuming his saxophone lessons, and spending time with Katie, his wife who was his operating room assistant for 20 years. Perhaps the sax lessons are an effort to match talents with Katie, an accomplished violinist, but their two dogs will have none of it. “The minute I open the sax case, they run,” Bour says.
They have two grown children—a son who is in commercial real estate in Florida and a daughter studying early childhood education in South Carolina.
The Bours have purchased a home in Covington, a show of commitment. “We need to be in this community,” he says. “We need to eat in this community. It didn’t feel right to me to not live in this community if I’m part of the system.” And why not live here, he points out. They can simultaneously enjoy the square and Atlanta, where they recently took in a Garth Brooks concert. “If this was the last place I worked in my career, I’d be perfectly satisfied. I love this town.”
Time is up, neither a minute early or a minute late, and Bour rises to say goodbye. There are things to do, including a Town Hall meeting with employees. Later that afternoon, the hospital’s website posts the current wait time to be seen at its ER room. It’s an agonizing 61 minutes, the longest of any of the eight hospitals in the Piedmont system. Yes, it’s nothing more than a late-day snapshot in time—it could be less than half that tomorrow—but for Bour, those construction crews working on the ER can’t move fast enough.
Rob Levin is president and editor of a book publishing company in Covington and is a former national feature writer for the Atlanta Constitution.