BISBEE — It was “the mission,” the rewards of “helping people in the community” that kept him in the captain’s chair as CEO of Copper Queen Community Hospital for nearly two decades.
James J. Dickson is a man who made extraordinary, forward-thinking decisions over his 19 years at the helm of the county’s most awarded health-care system. From upgrading the existing, outdated hospital he inherited to directing a remarkable expansion in quality health care leading to three rural clinics, two emergency departments and two urgent care operations, Dickson has been in the lead to provide rural communities with the best possible health treatment.
Now, he wants to turn his forward thinking to gardening, astronomy (he has a telescope), photography and rediscovering leisure reading.
“It’s time to retire,” he said. “I look forward to just being called Jim, instead of Mr. Dickson.”
A career spanning 46 years
His career in hospital management began at Chicago’s Gottlieb Memorial Hospital in 1972 as manager of patient accounting, and admitting and business office staff in the 250-bed, acute-care facility.
From there, his career led him to the assistant administrator position at McHenry Medical Group, a consortium of 27 multispecialty physicians in McHenry, Illinois, and then back to Chicago as the director of employee relations at the 330-bed Augustana Hospital.
In 1983, Dickson moved to Middletown, Ohio, and became vice president of the Middletown Regional Hospital, a 406-bed facility, where he dealt with human resources, risk management, staff resources, pastoral care and many other areas of hospital business.
To round out his experience, Dickson found an administrator/corporate vice president position at Mid-Island Hospital in Bethpage, New York, and then a CEO spot at Coalinga Regional Medical Center in Coalinga, California, running a small 76-bed acute care hospital.
Dickson discovered he preferred small hospitals and small, rural cities. When the job at the Copper Queen Community Hospital (CQCH) came available, he jumped at the chance to serve in Bisbee’s rural, historic community.
As Copper Queen Community Hospital CEO
Dickson faced financial challenges right off the bat, and made some tough decisions that showed his dedication to bringing the best possible care to a community with all sorts of medical needs.
The transition came at a time when the health-care delivery system was changing. People were focusing on health maintenance and less on stays in hospital beds. So he shifted the paradigm to a clinic setting, where people could come in and be treated well before any hospitalization was needed. The clinic he built long ago is still serving the people of Bisbee, and has undergone renovations and innovations in medical treatment as technology advanced.
The Bisbee clinic was the first in the state to offer Telemedicine, so patients could be treated as soon as they reached the clinic and emergency room. Telemedicine offers new hope for heart attack and stroke patients, pediatric patients, burn patients and patients with behavioral-health issues — and even neurological, hormonal and glandular issues.
When the 100-year-old hospital outside of Douglas went bankrupt, Dickson had already planned on meeting the needs of residents on both sides of the border. He opened a clinic that offered basic care with regular hours and its own primary care doctors and nurses.
As the population of the county grew, Dickson recognized the need for a rural health clinic in Palominas, and up it went. The patient numbers climbed so significantly, more doctors and nurse practitioners were added, as was a telemedicine system, and just in the past few years, a quick-care program was started.
Back in Bisbee, the emergency wing at CQCH needed to be upgraded, and an expansion was begun. The new Emergency Department is a testament to Dickson’s dedication to the health of the people he serves.
Next was an emergency department at the Douglas complex, which had grown to include quick care, telemedicine and testing labs.
“Mr. Dickson has been a champion for rural health care in Cochise County. His timely foresight to expand Copper Queen Community Hospital services into the outpatient realm in Bisbee, Douglas and Palominas has served the health of the community well,” noted Dr. Brian Miles, who works at the Palominas clinic. “He truly cares about the people of this community.”
So much so, Dickson has provided anti-opioids programs for schools in Bisbee, Douglas and Palominas, believing that if children are taught about the dangers of narcotics at the ages of 12 or 13, they may be spared the terrible toll of addiction.
“There are suicide and other things that plague our children. We feel we can do more if we focus on kids that age and get in the preventive mode,” added Dickson.
A payment plan for the people
Knowing the financial plight of rural Arizona over the years, Dickson devised payment schedules for any patient receiving care: a sliding scale based on income-to-poverty level, a 50 percent discount for those with no health insurance, and charity service if required.
He managed to bring the hospital and clinics through the waves of immigrants and provided them care, though it brought the hospital system close to bankruptcy.
“We had to lay off people and cut services,” Dickson explained. “Surviving that and still being able to care for people in a manner that befits a human being was a great success. We have had a phenomenal growth rate, and we can provide the services people need in an efficient manner.
“We just had to change the business plan. Not rely on the government for funding. If we run it like a business, we can survive.”
Dickson earned recognition among his peers in the state, and has received many, many awards, including being in the top five rural hospitals in the state and in the top 100 nationwide. Twice, he was awarded the Arizona Healthcare Professional of the Year, and was once recognized with the national Press Ganey Guardian of Excellence Award.
Dickson is proud of his physicians and staff, and complimented them on the awards they received for employee engagement.
Physicians and staff praise his work ethic
Dickson’s physicians and staff have only good things to say about him. While they feel sad he is retiring, they are grateful he was their chief, and feel he deserves the rest.
Dr. Prido Polanco, a longtime physician at the Bisbee CQ Rural Health Clinic said, “It’s been a privilege to work for him. I have admiration for his vision of the future of health care. I can see the differences over the years how he has changed the panorama of health care here.”
Some employees said they came to, and stayed with, the CQCH system because of Dickson’s determination to provide quality health care, stable jobs and modern facilities.
As Kevin Callison, admitting manager, put it, “I’ve stayed at CQCH because Mr. Dickson fostered a working environment of caring and compassion and profitability. It’s not always about the bottom line. It’s about the patients and employees. He genuinely cares about them.”
Shelly Mason, a new clinic manager, stated, “Mr. Dickson is a legend at Copper Queen Community Hospital. His experience, skills and his compassion for this hospital, the staff and the entire community is second to none. I hate to see him retire while I am just getting started with this amazing organization.”
Margarita Morales, manager of the Douglas Health Clinic, was impressed with his vision and said building the emergency department in Douglas was “a blessing that far exceeded expectations. There was skepticism on whether or not the ED should be built, but he said, ‘Douglas needs this, and I need to do this for Douglas.’ He followed his heart.”
Morales’ only regret was not getting him to roll the “r’s” in her name before he left, she joked.
Maybe when July 1 rolls around, he’ll add the practice of trilling an “r” to his leisure list.