As he settles into his new position as Sampson Regional Medical Center’s leader, Dr. Shawn Howerton said it is humbling to be the head of a hospital that boasts well-trained physicians, and said it is his goal to further the quality patient care received at the facility and in the community, while teaching the next generation of doctors.
Howerton was unanimously hired by the SRMC Board of Trustees as chief executive officer for the hospital on May 27.’
He joined SRMC in 2011 as chief medical officer (CMO) and served as the hospital’s interim CEO since November 2013. He will serve dual roles as he continues his responsibilities as CMO. Howerton’s acceptance of the CEO position makes him one of only two physician CEOs in North Carolina hospitals and only the sixth CEO in SRMC’s history.
“There won’t be a whole lot of significant changes other than to some degree the buck does stop with me,” Howerton said in a recent interview, describing his transition from interim to permanent role. “I’ll continue to do some patient care at my practice as I have the last seven months.”
Howerton and wife Dr. Amy Howerton opened Howerton Family Medicine in Roseboro in 2005. The practice will maintain limited hours of operation.
“My wife will continue to practice there and I will practice there to some degree,” Howerton noted. “If we get in a position where we need additional help to take care of patients we will do that.”
He said he received the question from his patients when he became CMO as to whether he was leaving. No, he said. The same question popped up when he accepted the interim CEO role, and again a couple weeks ago when he assumed the permanent leadership position.
Again, the answer was no, he said.
“I haven’t abandoned my patients and I don’t intend to,” he said. “I just very much enjoy caring for patients and this role allows me to do it in a slightly different way. If your typical family physician is seeing 20 patients a day, you’re hopefully positively impacting those 20 lives on that day.”
Within Sampson Regional, there are about 50 patients receiving care at any given time in each of the hospital’s various practices and another 100 who visit the Emergency Room daily.
“That means being able to positively impact the care of all those patients on a daily basis, not to mention being able to hopefully steer the health of our community in a positive direction,” Howerton stated. “As a family physician, I frequently joke that I spend most of my day trying to put myself out of business. Really your goal is to try and get everyone healthier and healthier. Our goal is to get our community healthier.”
Howerton pointed to Sampson’s overall health ranking of 81st out of 100 North Carolina counties. While there are several areas targeted for improvement, the community needs to expand its access to care.
“Right now we’re still under-served. We don’t have as many primary care providers in the community that we need, and that’s part of our rationale for branching out into working with residencies,” Howerton remarked, alluding to one of his main endeavors as of late. “We’ll be able to recruit (physicians) here. Studies have shown that if you bring in a family physician into any community, the health of the community is improved and the medical expenses go down.”
In the coming years, Howerton said Sampson Regional will become a center for higher-level education with its residency program. Through that program — Sampson Regional has already teamed with Campbell University’s School of Osteopathic Medicine — it is the hope that the next generation of young physicians will be groomed in Sampson and choose stay in Sampson.
Campbell students could begin coming to SRMC as early as next year, with residencies to follow shortly after.
“Any time you have students, you as the teacher tend to learn as much as the student does. It’s a win-win for the patient because you get multiple people thinking about your problem and your care from many different levels, and it ultimately ends up improving patient care,” the new CEO said.
The “backbone” of Sampson Regional is its physicians and staff, Howerton was quick to note.
“I can specifically say we have very strong, well-educated physicians who are very in tune to providing very quality care. Both those who are actively in the hospital and those who choose to practice in our community,” he said. “The doctors in our community are here because they choose to be. This is their home. They could go to any tertiary care center and get a job anywhere they’d like to be, but they choose to be here and we’re lucky to have board-certified, well-educated doctors. You don’t always see that in small community hospitals.”
Howerton cited that strong foundation at Sampson Regional and in the surrounding community as a main draw for himself. He knows others feel the same.
As a family physician, “you want to do it all,” he pointed out. That was a main reason why he came to rural Sampson.
Originally from Ohio, he and wife Amy have two children, daughter Phoebe, 9, and son Logan, 6. When he’s not running a practice and a hospital, he coaches some soccer and tee-ball through the Clinton Recreation Department.
“What’s kept me here is the community,” Howerton said simply. “It’s a great community.”
Trustee board chairman Allie Ray McCullen emphasized that the Board of Trustees committed itself to being diligent but deliberate in selecting the hospital’s next CEO, and they found what they were looking for in Howerton.
“As representatives of Sampson County residents, it is the goal of our board that SRMC continues providing quality medical services close to home. Dr. Howerton has shown great leadership and ability in the past seven months as he stepped up to fill the role as interim CEO, McCullen stated in the wake of Howerton’s May 27 hiring. “He is committed to the growth of Sampson Regional Medical Center and has a passion for ensuring that the hospital continues its focus on high patient satisfaction and the best quality care.”
Howerton said he had three career goals as a young resident. First, he wanted to open his own practice and second, ultimately become involved with hospital administration, which he was able to do as CMO and now as CEO. Third, he wanted to teach, something he loves. Through his position, and with the residency program, he will check that off the list too.
“Being able to do a little bit of all of the above is wonderful,” Howerton remarked.
And being able to follow in the footsteps of a select group of individuals that has headed up Sampson’s hospital in its 60-plus year is an honor, he noted.
“It’s humbling. We’ve had a lot of great leadership. This hospital was founded on great leadership,” Howerton attested. “Every CEO, every leader has kind of passed the baton and left the facility better during their stay. That would be my hope that, during my tenure, I can very clearly show this is where we were and this is what we accomplished.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121. Follow us on twitter @SampsonInd.