When the elderly couple moved into the nursing home in Tonasket, one of their main concerns was who would take care of their chickens. Gordon C. McLean (’67 Ag. Econ. ’73 M.A. Speech), administrator of the North Valley Hospital and Nursing Home, volunteered.

Listening to people and finding solutions has been his forte during a 30-year career in hospital administration. Over the past two decades, he’s breathed new life into healthcare facilities in rural eastern Washington.

McLean’s hospital ties date to 1975, when he was director of public relations at St. Mary’s Medical Center, Evansville, Indiana. Since 2001, he’s the one who answers the phone in the president’s office at Mount Carmel Hospital in Colville.

“Healthcare is so complicated. People have a difficult time understanding the constant changes in policies, procedures, and pricing,” he says. Traditionally, hospitals were low volume, high margin businesses, he explains. “We could charge a lot, and so we didn’t have to do many procedures. All that has changed. We are definitely low margin and dependent on holding our local market share; volume is essential to sustaining services such as obstetrics.”

McLean was the fourth administrator hired in as many years at North Valley Hospital in Tonasket in 1984. Intent on reducing the debt and increasing cash flow, he initiated a credit check for entering patients. They resented the policy. The hospital board stood behind him.

Many thought the hospital would fail. It didn’t. Under his three-year watch it was “reengineered,” acquired a new 70-bed nursing home, and broke into the black ink.

At Whitman Hospital and Medical Center in Colfax, McLean found “a fragile situation” in 1987. Losses the previous year totaled $233,000. The Palouse area’s 70,000 residents didn’t seem enough to support 152 hospital beds in Colfax, Pullman, and Moscow, Idaho. Whitman appeared to be in the greatest jeopardy of folding.

McLean eliminated a number of positions, froze salaries for 18 months, and spearheaded a successful drive to create a public hospital district that encompassed outlying communities. By year’s end the hospital showed its first positive balance in six years-nearly $58,000. In 1994 and 1995 Whitman was listed among the top 100 hospitals in the country by a national HCIA-Mercer ranking.

McLean assumed his duties at Mount Carmel Hospital, Colville, in August 2001. For the third time, he was in a red-ink situation.

He set about a “global turnaround” through staffing changes, system support, and having Mount Carmel named a critical access hospital-a designation by Congress for rural hospitals that provides a boost in payments to help keep vital community services open.

Mount Carmel is not only making a profit again, it is proceeding with a $20 million renovation and replacement of the 1952 facility.