Q&A With Atlantic General Hospital President, CEO Don Owrey

Q&A With Atlantic General Hospital President, CEO Don Owrey
Don Owrey

BERLIN – On June 1, Don Owrey began his tenure as the new president and chief operating officer of Atlantic General Hospital and Health System.

Owrey, who was selected to lead the hospital following a months-long national search, brings more than 30 years of health care experience to his new position.

Prior to joining Atlantic General, Owrey served as chief operating officer for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), where he was responsible for the system’s hospital and providers and managing $90 million in capital improvement projects. He has also served as president of UPMC Jameson and UPMC Horizon. There, he oversaw a newly acquired community hospital and organized clinical services across three hospital campuses.

On Monday, Owrey sat down with The Dispatch to talk about his move to the Eastern Shore, his new role at Atlantic General Hospital, and his plans to expand and improve health care services within the community.

Q: How are you feeling about your first few days here? Are you settling in?

A: I am settling in. It’s been incredibly rewarding. What appeals to me in a community hospital is the family atmosphere that you feel … but it’s much what I expected. I’m just trying to be a student of the organization and understand its history and how we’ve gotten to where we’ve gotten and how we can leverage that.

Q: When you first heard of this opportunity at Atlantic General, what attracted you to the position?

A: The geography was important to my wife and me. The mid-Atlantic area was somewhere we could see ourselves in this chapter of our lives. In terms of the hospital, it’s a hospital that’s kind of endeared by its community – the community really supports this hospital, and you can see it from its philanthropic support – and that is clear in its mission. It’s really focused on providing good care in the community that it serves. I like its independence, and I saw a lot of engagement with the board here. And I felt there was more right going on here, just reading about the organization, then there was wrong. There are some unique challenges – the geography and ruralness, the state of Maryland in some of their reimbursement modeling – but I like the community hospital setting. It’s where I’m probably most comfortable as a leader because what you see is what you get. I like to take my jacket off and work with people. Health care is relational. It’s become very transactional, but it’s relational. It’s people caring for people, and I liked the close-knit community hospital setting.

Q: Talk about your time with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. How did it shape you and prepare you for this role?

A: UPMC was good to me. It is a great organization, and it afforded me a lot of opportunity to grow as a leader and build my knowledge around health care and health care delivery. It was a large organization and the advantage of that is you have access to a lot of resources. So you can lean in to resources when “I’m having this problem” or “How do I deal with this?” You can always pick up the phone and talk to somebody. I’ll probably miss that to a degree, but I also think I’ve had exposure to a lot of different challenges that translate to the work that’s here. I was leading a number of their smaller community hospitals, multiple under me at a time, but each with its own nuance. I think I can draw on the experiences I have, but really it’s about leveraging the talents that exist in this organization. I’m not doing the work, I’m trying to lead the effort. I want to be inspiring to the staff. This work matters, it really matters. And I want our staff to know that we need them, and we need them fully engaged, we need them to bring the best of who they are everyday because our patients require that. And I think it’s incumbent on the leader that they have clarity around what their role is, that they have the resources to do their job and do it well, and that they’re participating in creating that environment for the patients.

Q: You touched on this a little bit. You are going from a leadership position in a metropolitan area to a community hospital. How does that translate?

A: It’s interesting because at UPMC I was in more of our smaller markets. So while UPMC is headquartered in Pittsburgh, I was running a number of our hospitals in Western Pennsylvania, across two counties with a total population of 100,000. More recently, I was in north central Pennsylvania, in Williamsport. Williamsport proper is about 30,000 people. Our service area was several hundred thousand, but it was spread out across a geographically dispersed area. This feels a lot like those areas. You don’t have maybe the direct access to large metro areas – it’s a couple hours away – but in terms of the community it feels and looks a lot like the environments I came from. When my wife and I transitioned from Western Pennsylvania to Williamsport-Susquehanna area, I told here I was bringing her to a body of water. She didn’t know it was the Susquehanna River. It’s a nice body of water, but she’s thrilled to be closer the Atlantic Ocean.

Q: Going back to what you just said, you said you were ready for this opportunity at this chapter of your life. What do you mean by that?

A: I’ve been in health care for 30 years, and I’m passionate about health care. When I look at the challenges that plague health care – and it’s across a lot of industries – I think this is a unique time for leaders to help redesign and transform health care. One of the appeals to Maryland was the reimbursement model. I’ve worked in an environment where we’ve talked about this transition from doing more volume, getting paid fee for service, to this value-based model, getting paid on your outcomes. And Maryland is unique in that it actually pays hospitals around that philosophy, we just have to get there. We spend way too much money as a health care system for what we’re getting from it. If you ask most patients, it’s confusing, it’s cumbersome to navigate, it’s incredibly anxiety-evoking. We as leaders have to take that friction away, we’ve got to make it better for the consumer, for the patient. And I feel like that’s one of the responsibilities I have as a health care leader. I look at the challenges and problems that exist in health care, and I think they land on its leadership. We can lament the fact that we don’t have staff and that we don’t have this, that and the other. But the fact of the matter is that as leaders we have to find ways to innovate and drive more value. That’s where I’m at at this point in my career. I want to develop people, coach individuals, but I want to be aggressive in how we innovate the delivery of care to make it more accessible to folks and less cumbersome. It’s very difficult for patients to navigate health care in today’s environment.

Q: Do you have any idea of how you want to address that?

A: This is day four, so that’s part of the fact finding. I said this to the organization, we have to understand where we have some problem points. It starts with access. We’ve got to ensure our patients across this community have access to the services that we make available, and when they call for an appointment, they’re given an appointment. When they need access to a test, we facilitate that and coordinate that in a way that makes it seamless and simple. Those are important things to me, but it’s also about right-sizing services to make sure we have the right complement of services in the right areas. We’re a community hospital, we’re going to stay in our lane. We’re going to do the things we can do well, that we can do safely, and where we can be best in class. But we’re not going to go over our capabilities, because we won’t succeed. We want to partner with other health care organizations because we have a community-wide responsibility to the health of the community.

Q: What do you see as some of the biggest challenges facing this hospital?

A: For this hospital, and the industry, it’s labor. It’s dealing with growing vacancies not only among professional staff – physicians, nurses, techs, what have you – but even in our essential support services. We need a lot of people to keep the environment clean. So we need housekeepers, we need folks in dietary that can feed our patients, all of those things. So labor is a real challenge. The economic conditions globally are also a concern. You see higher costs of doing business. Supply costs are going up because the logistics aren’t in place to get them here, or there are shortages. All of those costs are borne by somebody. And for us, we don’t have the ability to raise our prices, so to speak. And we can’t do more volume to cover the cost. So we’re going to have to find more ways to be more efficient and innovative around some of those challenges. There’s also the social anxiety that still exists with COVID. Our staff deal with the effects of COVID every single day. They come in, they’ve got masks, PPE they have to contend with, hygiene they have to contend with, and when they leave they are in the same environment we’re all in. They can never escape the realities of COVID, and that wears on your mental psyche after a while. We need resiliency in our staff, so that concerns me. And we try to address it.  We try to make our employees feel valued.

Q: There’s no doubt that Atlantic General has grown since its inception. How do you plan to lead the hospital into the future? What are your hopes for this hospital system?

A: In terms of immediate growth, we’ve got our Ocean Pines project, which is coming out of the ground on Racetrack Road. You can see the steel structure going up. That’s obviously exciting because we want to centralize as many services as we can there to make it convenient for patients, and we want to optimize those services. So that’s an important project over the course of the next 12 to 18 months. But it comes back to ensuring we have an adequate base of primary care. It starts there, you have to build access to good primary care services. Then, around that, add the appropriate specialty care, so that patients can receive the majority of the care they need in the community they live. We don’t want to have patients leave our area for health care we can otherwise provide. So what does that look like? Ask me in 90 days, and I’ll have a better plan. But right now, it’s about trying to understand where we are. You asked me earlier what was the appeal. This is a hospital that has stayed current with technology. It’s a modern facility and there’s a lot of innovations that have already been implemented. That’s appealing to me. It’s not like you are walking in here and everything needs to be replaced. Everything is fairly new, and the community has been gracious in providing financial support to the hospital. That matters and says a lot to me.

Q: Is there anything else you want the community to know about yourself?

A: It’s important for my wife Kelly and I to be part of the community and to assimilate well into this community. And when people have an issue or concern about the hospital, it’s hard not to take that personally for me. But I want the community to know we are an advocate for them. If there are things we aren’t doing well, or we can do better with, we want to know that. We are an incredible asset to this community, so we need feedback and I need feedback. I’m just happy to be here.

About The Author: Bethany Hooper

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Bethany Hooper has been with The Dispatch since 2016. She currently covers various general stories. Hooper graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 2012 and the University of Maryland in 2016, where she completed double majors in journalism and economics.