Amy Garner Unites Communication, Compliance, and Care

In the unique role of chief compliance and communications officer, Amy Garner shows the link between compliance and marketing—and how West Tennessee Healthcare can leverage these tools

“The care you trust is right here,” says Amy Garner, who wants everyone in her community to know about its access to West Tennessee Healthcare (WTH).

Coordinating a massive marketing campaign to get the word out, Garner explains that over the past decades the organization—a group of ninety facilities across nineteen counties—grew fast and did not worry much about a unified brand. WTH’s current marketing blitz to rectify that pattern is proving effective. In two years, name recognition has increased from 3 percent to 19 percent.

amy garner
Amy Garner, Chief Compliance & Communications Officer, West Tennessee HealthcarePhoto by David Bard Adkins

“We want people to understand that we are a high-quality organization with the same quality across facilities. We want people to choose us,” Garner says.

Garner’s grasp of organizational quality at WTH runs deep. She not only heads the communications team, she also oversees the compliance program for the system, overseeing rules and regulations. Her title, chief compliance and communications officer, is unusual.

“I don’t know anyone else who is a compliance officer and a communications officer,” she says. For Garner, bringing these areas of expertise together makes perfect and practical sense because of her unique skill set and the useful relationship between compliance and communication.

Twenty-two years ago, Garner joined WTH as an accountant. Leaving banking, she landed in healthcare and discovered she loved it. She happily recalls that staff “took me under their wing and taught me everything.” WTH’s mission also inspires her work. “I can’t help people directly, but it is good to know my work is helping people,” Garner says.

Since joining WTH, Garner has taken on diverse roles with a variety of reports. She says, “I’ve loved every job I’ve been in. I can never imagine wanting to do anything else, until I get a new role and then I love that.” She credits a passion for learning with facilitating this pleasure. As a result, Garner has an in-depth awareness of the organization and its 7,200 employees.

Three years ago, WTH leadership needed a temporary director of marketing and communications. They asked Garner to take on the challenge. “Maybe it’s because I like to talk all the time,” she says, laughing. While she jokes about her abilities, leadership identified her talent for identifying audiences and creating effective communication, making her the perfect candidate for the job.Garner quickly discovered how much she enjoyed—and excelled at—marketing, social media, and public and media relations, especially because of the creative outlet it allows her. “I had never even written a press release before, but now I love it,” she says. After one year of leading communications in an interim capacity, Garner and WTH agreed she should staff the role permanently and added “communications officer” to her title.

Bill Stiles, director of strategy and research at WTH’s partner the Johnson Group, believes Wests’s two unique roles work hand in hand to help further WTH’s mission. “When I think of compliance, I think of doing the right things for the right reasons,” he says. “Effective, ethical marketing communications is based on the same ideal. Amy’s passion for truth and trust is critical to her success in both roles.”

Because of her compliance background, Garner has ready answers to legality questions inherent in healthcare marketing. She knows how much transparency is allowed, where crews can film, and what patient data marketers can access. She understands rules and regulations about financial incentivization. This information streamlines her communications work and creates an unexpected collaboration.

“I can’t help people directly, but it is good to know my work is helping people.”

On the other side, Garner says that taking over communication work improves her relationships within the healthcare system. “People are often guarded with compliance officers,” she says. “They are waiting for a ‘no.’” Working in marketing, a different occasion for meeting with staff, means Garner can build relationships more easily and, perhaps, move the compliance office closer to what she wants: “to be viewed as a resource.” In her compliance role, Garner must use her communication skills to speak to very specific audiences within the hospital and has taken on a goal of increasing compliance branding.

Since taking over the compliance office in 2003, Garner has done a great deal of work to get it to a place where employees could consider it a resource. When she began, the board assured her they prioritized putting resources towards internal auditing and creating clear and competent compliance structures. Garner and her team rolled up their sleeves to create policy and procedures and “turn over rocks to find problems,” she says. Garner shifted to compliance the same year that federal HIPAA guidelines went into effect and WTH relied on Garner’s team to build ground-up privacy protection structure, as well as design and implement learning management tools.

Working with a compliance team made of the same five people since 2003, Garner says, “They know their stuff. Now we see fewer problems and respond more quickly.” With these systems functioning, Garner’s ten communications and media service staffers, as well as a group of outside consultants, can benefit from the time and energy she directs at marketing and PR.

As WTH prepares to celebrate its seventieth birthday in August of 2020, Garner wants to make sure that people share her enthusiasm for the organization. She helps promote WTH’s providers, many facilities, and cancer treatment center by highlighting its unique position in the community and its commitment to uninsured patients.  “Our organization does so much more than just healthcare,” she says. “We are the largest employer in the region, outside of Memphis, and we are great corporate citizens.”

“I hope that the compassion of clinical providers has rubbed off on me,” she adds. Her passion for delivering safe, effective healthcare, though, suggests she already embodies this compassion—and it will guide her in any role WTH has in store.