I spent an hour Thursday with Phil Burns, a man who I would trust implicitly if my life was on the line. After all, he’s the Chief of Surgery at Erlanger Hospital but this wasn’t in some examination room. No, this was in his back office and a close friend took me there over “matters of mutual interest.”
I’ve known Dr. Burns for a long time, well enough to know he’s served as the president of three of the most prominent medical societies in America and that he how has a herd of 1,000 prize-winning cattle in Sequatchie Valley. I trust people who are leaders, visionaries and but whose principles and values can easily be read just by looking at their land and their livestock.
Phil’s a delicate surgeon; he wasn’t going to chastise me about ripping Erlanger every chance I get in a desperate effort to force its staggering leadership to reverse $15 million in losses thus far this fiscal year. Instead, he wanted to assure me, behind his closed door, that Chattanooga’s biggest hospital was showing some visible signs of recovering from terrible mismanagement and near-catastrophic strategies.
After watching Erlanger Hospital for nearly 30 years Dr. Burns has seen some highs and lows but he said there is already a team of “promising” consultants in place helping to make key decisions, that he has seen the final architect’s drawings for a $25 million surgery expansion, and that he feels our legislative delegation is ready to cast away the outdated charter for the Chattanooga Hospital Authority and replace it with a very-workable 501c3-type organization.
What’s matters most to me is that Phil Burns is the one who said it. While I don’t want to appear so crass to say I wouldn’t believe it if I’d heard it from some others, I’ll admit that sometimes it all comes down to whom you trust. “It took a long time for all of what you have seen in the last year to happen. It’s going to take a while to turn it back around.”
I looked at Phil and asked him if Erlanger would return to glory before he, now in his 60s, retired and he told me very candidly, “I think it will. “ Braced by the first affirmative statement I have heard since the Board of Trustees infuriated the community by giving the ousted leadership over $1 million in a misguided severance package, I asked him when could I – just one guy with an opinion – actually feel and touch the changes.
“It is already happening but there are so many parts to the puzzle that have to be organized. We are moving the medical library, for instance, to give us the room for the surgical expansion. And there were some things that were broken – such as communication between physicians and administrators – that have been corrected. One person can’t do it, but with the consultants and a willing administration, we are getting everything moving in the right direction – and in the right way -- again.”
We talked about Erlanger’s loss of physicians, the fact its largest competitors are making money while Erlanger is bleeding, and the worry we could lose our invaluable residents program connection with UT. He said better business formats will bring doctors back, that Erlanger’s stronger dedication to patient care and forthcoming capital improvements will get the numbers back into the black, and that he has no reason to believe the UT School of Medicine is going anywhere. “UT is happy. I know.”
“Patient care has never been compromised. We have very good people where we need them. We’ve actually hired some sharp people in surgery and we are treating more patients than ever before. One problem is that after eight years of no capital improvements, we are paying the price for poor management that I saw coming 10 years ago. I admit it,” he confessed.
“The thing you have to believe is this. All of that is in the past. You don’t think it breaks our hearts that we are in this situation? What this hospital needs to do is forget how this started and all the things that have gone wrong. Remember them as a lesson … but the energy is to move forward. Our Board of Trustees is as good as it has been in a long time.
“The County Commission just approved for the hospital’s Chief of Staff to come on the board and that’s good for Erlanger,” said Dr. Burns. “Saying a doctor shouldn’t be on the board is like saying a lawyer shouldn’t be a judge! Woody Kennedy will be a great voice and so will Dan Fisher, who is the next Chief of Staff. To get these things done takes time but this is just like what is happening in so many other areas of the hospital, too.”
Asked about CEO Charlesetta Woodward-Thompson, Dr. Burns gave his frank opinion. “I think she’s better than the last two CEOs we’ve had. There is a petition going around to have her installed as a permanent CEO but I’m not on the board so I shouldn’t comment on that. The consultants, which she brought in before she had to, have helped us a lot.”
Phil believes the Chattanooga delegation on the state legislature, once it is chosen in the November election, will take the next big step in restructuring the hospital. “We can easily show anybody what that could mean for our community.”
So by the time Dr. Burns went back into surgery yesterday, I’ll admit I was feeling better about “our” hospital. Sometimes just going to the doctor will make you feel better but listening to a voice you trust and respect is bigger medicine. I just hope Erlanger Hospital will be quick to heal.