September 30, 2008

Health Executive Returns to Roots

By Erin Wisdom

Several generations after his great-grandfather began the first hospital in Braymer, Mo., Ben Ernst is continuing his family's legacy of providing health care in Northwest Missouri -- although his approach is slightly different than that of his ancestor.

"I don't travel by horse and buggy," notes Mr. Ernst, who became Northwest Health Services' new chief executive officer in July. After a transitional period during the summer in which he worked alongside former CEO Susan Wilson, who now works for the Missouri Primary Care Association, he has now assumed full responsibility for the role.

Mr. Ernst grew up in Chillicothe, Mo., and recently retired from the U.S. Navy, having served 20 years in various health care administration positions. He has a bachelor's degree in economics from the University of Missouri-Columbia and master's degrees in business administration and health administration from the University of Notre Dame and Baylor University, respectively.

"He's a very well-rounded health care executive," says Becky Hampton, Northwest's chief operations officer. "He has a good deal of education and training and a multitude of leadership qualities."

Mr. Ernst, his wife and their five children moved to the Savannah, Mo., area from Atoka, Tenn., and in some ways, it was a move that was a long time in the making.

"I always thought I'd come back to Missouri," Mr. Ernst says. "That desire and my background made me a good fit for (Northwest's) mission."

That mission, he adds, is to serve the underserved with safety- net clinics in 10 Northwest Missouri and Northeast Kansas counties. These clinics serve about 30,000 patients, and the main challenge Northwest faces right now is recruiting and retaining the doctors and nurses necessary for this, Mr. Ernst said.

Already, however, he's been able to hire several for clinics in St. Joseph and Savannah and also has been able to seek advice from other area health care providers about how best to serve St. Joseph and its surrounding cities.

"I think everyone's more than willing to help us succeed," he says.

Erin Wisdom can be reached

at [email protected]

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