Health Care Hero and MEDIC Regional Blood Center CEO Jim Decker
Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel
Jim Decker is always searching for creative ways to encourage people to donate life-saving blood.
“It’s a daily challenge to make sure we’re recruiting sufficient donors to meet our needs locally,” said Decker, who has served as MEDIC Regional Blood Center’s chief executive officer for the past 11 years.
The private nonprofit organization collects, processes and distributes an estimated 100,000 blood components to 28 hospitals across 23 counties in East Tennessee and Southeast Kentucky.
“We do not rely heavily on grants, nor do we solicit financial donations,” Decker said. “We do, however, rely on volunteer blood donors to support our mission.”
Faced with a changing donor base, MEDIC has turned to social media and community partnerships to raise awareness about the importance of donating blood.
“One of the things Jim has been able to do is instill a lot of community loyalty and support in being able to offer things to potential donors and being innovative in what they offer in order to attract donors,” said Jack Bryan, chairman of MEDIC’s board of directors.
This summer, MEDIC entered blood donors into drawings to win tickets to the Bristol Motor Speedway Food City 300 race and to see country music singer Luke Bryan in concert. It sponsored two “Pint for a Pint” initiatives in which people received a pint of ice cream after they donated blood. It also gave away tickets for free admission to area attractions and coupons for food from local restaurants.
Staying on top of trends
Bryan credits Decker with staying on top of trends in the blood banking industry that have allowed MEDIC to remain a valuable resource in the healthcare community.
“There are many, many blood centers struggling financially and Jim’s leadership has provided the ability for MEDIC to maintain that through good-faith management and accountability and always looking at different ways to innovate, consolidate and be more efficient with the operations,” he said.
MEDIC’s primary revenue stream comes from the fees it charges the hospitals for the blood it supplies to them.
But hospitals here and across the nation have been changing the way they use blood.
“Because of what hospitals are dealing with in terms of patient quality and safety and cost control, hospitals are taking a much more prudent posture as it (pertains) to blood transfusions,” Decker said. “We want to do what’s best for the patient, but any time there’s a change in clinical decision making, it has the potential to affect us.”
MEDIC, Bryan said, has been laying the groundwork to bring transfusion medicine services to East Tennessee.
“We’re not providing that service yet, but I think it’s a critical service and one of the key things as far as the future is concerned,” Bryan said.
Decker said the heavily regulated blood banking industry has also gone through its own transformational changes.
“What we do is downstream to what’s happening in the healthcare arena,” he said. “The utilization of blood in hospitals, as well as competitive forces, make us have to do things differently than we have had to in the past.”
Prepared for change
And while it’s too early to predict how things will play out, Decker said his background in hospital administration has prepared him well to navigate MEDIC through the changes.
“Our key customers at MEDIC are hospitals and that’s the environment I came out of,” he said.
Decker, a native of Zachary, La., developed an interest in microbiology as a young student at Louisiana State University. He earned a bachelor’s degree in the discipline and then pursued his master’s degree in the same field.
“Ironically, when I was working on my master’s in microbiology, my research was on blood disease in cattle,” he said.
While working as a respiratory therapist to earn extra money during graduate school, he realized he was more interested in the inner-workings of a hospital than spending his days looking down a microscope.
He enrolled in the University of Alabama’s graduate program in hospital and health care administration and came to Knoxville in 1976 to complete the residency portion of the program at what was then Fort Sanders Presbyterian Hospital.
“I came to Knoxville thinking I would do that one-year residency and move on to somewhere else,” he said. “But at the end of the residency, Fort Sanders was going through an expansion project, building the wing that houses the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center. I was asked to stay on staff there to assist with the move to the new facility, so I took on the responsibility related to that.”
Decker spent seven years at Fort Sanders before accepting a position as CEO of Sumner Memorial Hospital in Gallatin. At the time, hospitals across the nation were figuring out how to manage changes to reimbursement methods, particularly as it pertained to Medicare patients.
“Officially, from the day I walked in the door, there was a downturn in admissions,” he said. “I had to make some very difficult decisions in that very first year in terms of what were appropriate levels of staffing and what other types of things had to be adjusted to the operational costs to keep the doors of the hospital open.”
Decker described that year as a fundamental learning experience that has helped him throughout the rest of his career.
“It gave me better appreciation to the challenges of running a hospital, but also the needs of employees,” he said. “The good news is I lived through it. We were able to make those adjustments and stabilize it to the point the hospital became very successful.”
After five years in Gallatin, Decker served as president and CEO of Clarksville Memorial Hospital, spent a brief stint as a hospital consultant and then returned to Knoxville in 2001 to join the Baptist Health System of East Tennessee.
He served as an administrator and senior vice president in the corporate office at Baptist before accepting the position as MEDIC’s CEO in 2006.
“MEDIC was an opportunity to make use of all the education that I had in one place,” he said.
Leading in the shadows
Since joining MEDIC, Bryan said Decker has ensured the organization, which operates with 135 employees at a main facility in downtown Knoxville and satellite collection facilities in Farragut and Crossville, has a safe supply of blood products readily available for when they are needed.
“That’s not an easy task,” Bryan said. “Jim’s leadership style is that of a servant leader. He does not often seek personal recognition, but prefers to let those around him be recognized for their achievements. His quiet demeanor and reserved personality sometimes place him in the shadows of others.”
Throughout his career, he has held leadership positions in many professional associations and has volunteered his time with numerous civic and community organizations, serving as president-elect of the Rotary Club of Knoxville.
Decker, a fellow in the American College of Healthcare Executives, also furthered his education, earning a master’s degree in business administration and a doctor of health administration.
“I get gratification from the fact that I know what we’re doing is helping people on a daily basis,” he said of his work with MEDIC. “We’re an integral part of the healthcare system here locally because of the nature of what we do to make sure we have a sufficient blood supply. It’s important that we continue to operate and continue to be here to support (the hospitals’) needs.”
Education: Bachelor’s degree, microbiology, Louisiana State University; master’s degree, microbiology, LSU; master’s degree, hospital and health administration, University of Alabama-Birmingham; master’s of business administration, University of Tennessee; doctor of health administration, Medical University of South Carolina
Honors: 1994 recipient, Tennessee Hospital Association Service Award for a Chief Executive Officer; 1995 Alumnus of the Year, Graduate Program in Hospital and Health Administration at UAB; 2009 recipient, Tennessee American College of Healthcare Executives Regent’s Award for Senior Level Healthcare Executive; 2013 Outstanding Doctor of Health Administration Student, Medical University of South Carolina
Professional service: Member and former board of trustees member, Tennessee Hospital Association; former THA representative, American Hospital Association Regional Policy Board; past chair, THA Solutions Group; fellow, American College of Healthcare Executives; past president, Middle Tennessee Hospital District and Knoxville Area Hospital Districts; past ACHE Regent for Tennessee; member, East Tennessee and Middle Tennessee Healthcare Executive Chapters; former secretary/treasurer, MTHEA; past member, Board of the Hospital Alliance of Tennessee; former board member, America’s Blood Centers; board member, Curae Health; board member, Community Blood Centers Exchange; former member, Together Healthy Knox Leadership Team
Community service: President-elect, The Rotary Club of Knoxville; past president, UAB GPHHA Alumni Association; board member, the Trinity Health Foundation of East Tennessee; board member, Senior Citizens Home Assistance Services; former board member, United Way, Boy Scouts, American Heart Association, Boys and Girls Club and TVA Weekend Academy; past president, Gallatin and Clarksville Chambers of Commerce; graduate, Leadership Clarksville, Leadership Knoxville, Leadership Cocke County and East Tennessee Regional Leadership; deacon and Sunday School teacher, First Baptist Church of Knoxville
Family: Wife Michelle, children Ben Decker, Brittany Decker and Madeline Tucker, son-in-law Zach Tucker
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Health Care Hero Jim Decker gets creative with MEDIC Regional Blood Center