BECKLEY, W.Va. (AP) — The life of a health care administrator can be surprisingly nomadic.
David Darden, CEO of Raleigh General Hospital for the second time, back now since May, found out early in his career in health care administration that he'd be planting stakes in places like Virginia, Florida, North Carolina and New Mexico.
But of all the relocations he's made to his many successful posts within hospital leadership, the place he regretted leaving most was Beckley.
"I've monitored the progress RGH has had over the years. I felt when the opportunity to come back was presented to me, it was one of those places that maybe it wasn't the smartest decision to leave the first time."
Originally from Bedford, Va., Darden was the son of a small town physician, Bruton Darden, one of a diminishing breed of doctors who still made house calls.
"I was kind of preprogrammed toward medicine by nurses patting me on the head, saying I was going to grow up and be just like my father," he recalled.
He graduated Class of '74 from Liberty High School, Bedford, an all-around student athlete, achieving in academics, football, track and tennis.
In spite of those early predictions about practicing medicine, his ambivalence grew. Darden knew quickly at Hampden-Sydney College that following in his father's footsteps, though honorable, wasn't the path for him.
"When I got to college, I saw how backstabbing and backbiting it could be. It was very competitive. I thought 'You're going into medicine to help people and yet you can't help your own classmates?' It really bothered me."
Darden completed the same courses as his medical peers, but chose not to go to medical school.
Once out of college, he was perplexed about career opportunities.
"Back in the late '70s, the economy was very similar to what it is today," he recalled — a time scarce in opportunity and replete with uncertainty.
He became what he calls a "bum" for nearly a year, enjoying a stint as a lifeguard at Virginia Beach and a season of surviving in order to ski in Aspen, Colo.
"I was mentally bored by that March. That's when I realized I needed to focus on what I wanted to do and evaluate what my options were. I kept coming back to health care because I felt very comfortable within that environment."
This internal examination led him to consider a different but essential aspect of health care — hospital leadership.
He followed his Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Hampden-Sydney with a Master of Science in health care administration from Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas. Then, the task of progressing through experience to becoming a full-fledged CEO began.
"When you work for companies the size of HCA and LifePoint, you certainly have the opportunity to travel," he said, naming RGH's previous and current owners.
After cutting his teeth in administration with the hospital system now known as Carillion, Darden worked three years as assistant administrator of Wytheville (Va.) Community Hospital, then went to Morehead Memorial Hospital, Eden, N.C., as vice president and as CEO at Chatham Hospital, Siler City, N.C. There Darden established a relationship with UNC Chapel Hill that secured the small hospital's sustainability, an alliance that has since endured.
He made a year-and-a-half stop into physician practice management before joining Raleigh General Hospital for the first time, as COO in 1994. In 1998, he was promoted to CEO. At the time, Raleigh General was an HCA-owned hospital.
Darden left RGH in 2001 to become CEO of Montgomery Regional Hospital, Blacksburg, Va. Another COO position at Memorial Medical Center at Las Cruces, N.M. followed, and a CEO position in Florida at Bartow Memorial Hospital.
At Clinch Valley Medical Center, Richlands, Va., he saw his hospital team through to becoming one of LifePoint's five High Five Awards recipients for operational excellence in 2008, winning again as one of four to receive the award in 2011.
He had served as CEO for CVMC since 2006, when he accepted the call to return to Beckley, a place where he says he purposefully maintained solid connections.
"Because I've had an opportunity to be a part of the Beckley community for seven years, I feel very much a part of it. My children attended school here and we attended church here. I'm from a very small town — much smaller than Beckley. I feel very much at home with the culture that exists here."
The second time around presents its challenges inside an ever-changing health care landscape, but also its rewards. Darden's goal is to make sure the foundation that reinforces RGH's "We Touch Lives" motto continues.
"The resources made available to RGH with LifePoint are far greater than those that were available during ownership by HCA. So, there are certainly physical improvements and equipment acquisitions, like the medical complex across the street and DaVinci (robotic-assisted surgery) technology."
Working in an environment where there has been a significant capital commitment, said Darden, has made it easier to attract quality physicians to serve the community.
"We are facing an unprecedented era of financial uncertainty in health care. It's going to require hospitals and physicians to work far more collaboratively than ever before.
"Part of the challenge going forward is creating relationships and aligning incentives so the focus remains on high quality care and a safe environment. How can we be responsible for the organization so it will still be viable to serve people over the next decades?"
The answer to that question has become Darden's daily quest.
With uncertainties like the fulfillment of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) and how today's hospital must adapt into tomorrow's as a result, Darden feels it's more crucial than ever to secure the basic rights of patients.
"What we have to do as responsible providers is to focus on making sure we are providing high quality care to our patients every single day."
This includes simplistic-sounding yet complex problems such as patient safety while in the hospital, reducing risk of falls and hospital-acquired infections and providing the right care in an efficient way, to transition patients safely back home, where true recovery happens.
Ensuring a vision for impeccable patient outcomes, Darden explained how Raleigh General was one of two hospitals in West Virginia recently awarded a grade of "A'' by The Leapfrog Group, a program that comparatively measures hospital performance against national standards of safety, quality and efficiency.
"We're creating a place where physicians want to practice, an environment where we recognize physicians, patients and employees have an opportunity to work in a number of different locations."
What Beckley offers in being competitive for future physician talent, one of Darden's top priorities, is an unprecedented opportunity for doctors to have the kind of practice that, in concept, first drew them to medicine. The competition is tough: where new talent gets cherry-picked by handsome offers from places like Boston and New York.
"When we talk about our patient population and the diseases represented here, candidates find it hard to believe there's that fertile a ground of health care complexity in a small rural mountainous community. They didn't see the incidence of cancer in New York that we have here, or of heart disease and obesity."
They, Darden maintains, have the opportunity to do what is at the core of the practice of medicine — to effect positive, life-altering change.
"I meet with all the new employees and try to get them to realize the responsibility they have to the patients who cross our threshold. I know of no other calling with this level of responsibility, that someone's father, brother, sister or grandmother is entrusting their life and well-being to us. Our goal is to treat each individual as mine or your most cherished loved one. To provide not only health care that is exceptional in quality, but to do so in a safe environment."
For now, the father of three and grandfather of two will remain steady and fearless, in his free time as an open water scuba diver, pilot to his Piper Cherokee 6 and grandparent to his grandkids— and in his leadership role at RGH, with a challenging issued for his and RGH's future:
"My goal is to be recognized as one of the top 100 hospitals in the country."
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.