For someone who supervises one of the largest health care teams in Chattanooga, it's surprising to hear Thomas Ozburn, the recently appointed CEO of Parkridge Health System, say that he never had any interest in becoming a doctor.
"You have got to be called into that profession," says Ozburn, 49, during an interview in his office at Parkridge's McCallie Avenue main campus. "The clinical side of medicine was just never appealing to me."
It didn't help that he was not a great student in chemistry, he said, a key class for physicians-to-be.
Job: CEO of Parkridge Health System
Education: He earned a bachelor of science degree in health care management from The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, a master of health administration degree from The University of Memphis College of Health Sciences in Memphis, and a master of business administration degree from The University of Memphis business school. He is a fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives.
Career: A native of Chattanooga, Ozburn began his hospital career at Erlanger Health System and joined HCA in 2007, where he has been chief operating officer for hospitals in Hermitage, Tennessee and Bowling Green, Kentucky and has worked in operations with HCA Physician Services Group.
Professional associations: He has served as a board member for the Tennessee Hospital Association, Healthcare Executives Forum of Middle Tennessee, Nashville Zoo, Men of Valor, Tennessee Christian Chamber of Commerce, YMCA of Middle Tennessee, and Soles4Souls.
But what he did have a talent for, Ozburn believes, is business, in particular the health care business. "I seemed to have a knack for relationships," he says.
He also credits a stray dog the family picked up on a vacation trip to the beach for getting him interested in business at an early age. The Ozburns were living on Signal Mountain, across from the 14th hole on the golf course, a place where Ozburn said he spent a lot of his spare time in his younger years, trying for a hole-in-one.
He would walk the dog on the golf course at night, he said, and learned that if he tossed a slice of cheese into the rough at the edge of the green, the dog would often return with a golf ball in his mouth. Ozburn ended up with "pillowcases full of golf balls" that — with a little polishing — led to a thriving business for the 10-year-old. "That was my first job, how I made my money. I would sell golf balls to the golfers, although they wanted to buy my dog," he recalls.
He first learned about health care just down the road, he said, at the Alexian Brothers facility for seniors (now Alexian Village). The facility was the closest place with a Coke machine, so Ozburn was a regular visitor and he and his family became friends with one of the residents, a man they called Uncle John.
"He became kind of a family friend," he says, and that was where Ozburn got his first close-up look at how health care worked. "I enjoyed the relationship we had formed with Uncle John, but I really enjoyed the relationships with people who cared for him.When it came to choosing a career, I was surprised to find there was a way to study that."
After graduating from the Baylor School, he did just that, at the University of Alabama, where he got an undergraduate degree in health care management. But his first job, in what was called the central dispatch or patient supply department at Erlanger Hospital, didn't seem to involve much managing.
"The nursing floors would send down orders via the [pneumatic] tube system for bedside commodes or IV bags," Ozburn says. "I was the guy who delivered that all through the hospital. When it came time to pick up the bedside commode that had been used, I was the guy who picked it up and cleaned it."
His lucky break came in the Erlanger cafeteria. He was eating there one day when then-Erlanger CEO James Pickle sat down at his table and asked who he was and what he did at the hospital. After hearing Ozburn's story, Pickle convinced him that he needed a master's degree to achieve his career goals, and helped him get into a program at the University of Memphis, where Pickle had earned his degree.
When Ozburn graduated, he checked back with Pickle, who by that time had moved over to HCA, the large Nashville-based hospital chain formerly known as Hospital Corporation of America. Pickle asked his friend Steve Burkett to help Ozburn find a job and he did, at an HCA hospital. But now that he is back in Chattanooga, Ozburn finds his old benefactor Burkett across town at his competition, working as vice president for physician services for Erlanger.
"I owe a lot to Erlanger in my early years," he says.
But Ozburn is now firmly in the HCA camp. He touts the advantages of membership in a network of 178 hospitals in terms of providing expertise, access to technology, and clout in making bulk purchases. A large organization also has the ability to develop technology on its own, Ozburn said.
He points to what HCA now calls iMobile, an application developed in a pilot program with Apple Computer. When nurses clock in at Parkridge, they get access to a secure network on their smartphones that allows them to check their assignments, patient records, lab reports, and communicate with doctors wherever they are.
"What iMobile did for our clinicians is it enabled them to do what we on the business side have been doing for years — multitasking," he says. "Previously, our nurses were tethered to a telephone and the nurses' station and little pink pads where messages were written.
"Things like that, a freestanding community hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is not going to have the financial resources to engage in."
That sounds like a dig at Parkridge rival Erlanger, which has been touting its "world-class health care" in an aggressive TV and newspaper campaign.
Although it is one of the 20 largest employers in town, with nearly 2,000 staffers, Parkridge has long been the third-largest of Chattanooga's three major health care systems, behind Erlanger and CHI Memorial. Erlanger executives recently touted their success in expanding their share of business in the area, claiming they now have a 42 percent to 32 percent lead over CHI Memorial, with Parkridge trailing at around 15 percent.
But Ozburn notes that market share can be measured in different ways."Clearly Erlanger has grown in market share," he says. "A lot of that has been through physician acquisition" and the recent expansion of Erlanger East. His approach is to convince doctors to funnel their patients into Parkridge by forming partnerships with physician groups — not acquiring them.
"I think that has the ability to be a long-standing strategy, a sustainable strategy. You can add beds all day long, but you have to have doctors to fill them. To have a successful hospital strategy, you have to have a successful physician strategy."
He is not pleased with Erlanger's push to lock up certain physician groups. In the past, Chattanooga had a number of quality physician groups that collaborated with all three hospitals, Ozburn said, and as Erlanger has pushed some of them to work only with it, "those groups have been imploded," he says. "I don't necessarily know if that is great for Chattanooga."
Ozburn thinks he can win physician loyalty without seeking exclusive deals. "What doctors want at the end of the day, is they want their patients to get great care," he said. "They want to know that if they trust your institution to perform a surgical case, their patient will get the best possible treatment in the operating room and on the [nursing] floor."
That requires hospitals to spend money. "You do have to have tools, absolutely," Ozburn said. Parkridge is currently in the middle of a $28 million phase one capital expansion downtown, mostly centered around expanding and enlarging the operating rooms. There is a similar project for Parkridge East. "Our emergency room at Parkridge East is growing faster than any other in the city, and it needs to be bigger," Ozburn said. "We need more ICU beds, need more NICU [neonatal intensive care unit] beds out there. We have to invest those dollars to provide physicians with the area and space they need to practice."
Parkridge has staked out its own territory, and Ozburn's task is to find a way to protect it while expanding into other areas. Parkridge and Erlanger both offer pediatric services, while CHI Memorial does not, and Parkridge has the only behavioral health hospitals, Parkridge Valley's Adult and Senior campus and its Child and Adolescent campus, plus another 20 beds at Parkridge West in Marion County that will soon be expanded to 28 beds.
But Erlanger is adding its own mental health hospital, breaking ground in early May on a new 88-bed facility on Holtzclaw Avenue that will be funded by Franklin, Tennessee-based Acadia Healthcare and staffed by Erlanger. Ozburn said he believes there is plenty of business in the behavioral health field for everyone, but Erlanger's ad campaign has rankled: "It's been interesting to read some of the Erlanger ads claiming to be the premiere behavioral health facility, when they haven't done it yet," he said.
Still, Ozburn is happy Erlanger is in town. "I want a healthy Erlanger," he said. "They provide some great services, they are the safety net hospital for our city, they provide trauma care, they provide pediatrics — I want them to do that."
Ozburn wants to focus on finding more ways to get patients into the Parkridge system, what he calls "expanding our access points."
Parkridge has partnered with eight CVS pharmacy locations around town with their walk-in clinics, where nurse practitioners can provide initial care and refer patients to Parkridge if the problem turns out to be more serious. "What we're finding is that people are accessing care in different ways now, whether through an urgent care setting, a nurse practitioner, a freestanding outpatient center, or even online. People want care to be more convenient and accessible."
He hints that the health care system might partner with another hospital in the region, pointing out that Parkridge is part of HCA's Tri-Star division that includes hospitals from eastern Kentucky and Tennessee to north Georgia. A benefit of being a part of HCA is that "we can look for opportunities where there might be another facility to join that would make sense for our portfolio here."
All of the competition among the area's health care systems will end up benefiting the community, Ozburn believes. "Can we improve on services? Every single day. Will we invest heavily in our market? You betcha. Will we be more aggressive, and look for more sites? You bet we will. It's going to be great for Chattanooga and the outlying communities of the Tennessee Valley that utilize this city for care."