Calling attention to disruptive hospital CEOs

Karen Cheung

Karen M. Cheung

At a healthcare conference I attended, I recalled a hospitalist who asked for advice in dealing with a "toxic person" at the hospital. Although the conference occurred a few years ago, the toxic hospital employee scenario could have just as easily been today.

Although there's been modest attention paid to toxic physicians, for a lack of a better term (Note: The Joint Commission no longer uses the term, "disruptive physician", according to Medical Staff Leader Connection), there hasn't been as much attention to disruptive CEOs.

News broke this week of a couple of healthcare CEOs gone wild. For instance, the president and chief administrative officer of Dimensions Healthcare System on Monday resigned from the Prince George's County, Md., hospital system after an internal investigation determined he was involved in kickbacks. The investigation turned up that Kenneth Glover discussed giving lucrative contracts to now-convicted county executive Jack Johnson in exchange for his job in 2010, Washington Business Journal reported.

In another scandalous event at the top, the former CEO of Powell (Wyo.) Valley Healthcare faces a lawsuit for allegedly embezzling nearly $850,000 while he was head of the nonprofit hospital system--that is if people can find him to serve him papers. The hospital system wasn't involved in filing the complaint, but HealthTech Management Services Inc. who filed the suit said Paul Cardwell set up a bogus company to reap the money and then provided false documentation to support the payments, the Powell Tribune reported.

What could have caused these CEOs to go over the proverbial edge?

Although he wasn't pointing to CEO scandals specifically, Steven Valentine, president of the consulting firm Camden Group, recently noted that the industry will see more hospital CEO burnout this year. And a study last month found that healthcare CEO turnover is the highest of all industries and is on pace to see even more CEO turnover in 2012, according to outplacement service firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Could stress and burnout have had any role in the actions of Glover or Cardwell or others like them? Or was it a lack of basic morals? With reimbursement challenges, reform changes, an entire institution(s) to take care of, in addition to family responsibilities, maybe the CEOs cracked under pressure.

Cardwell, for example, who resigned for a few days in September 2011, had cited "tremendous amount of pressure" in his professional and personal life, including family issues.

Whether on the verge of embezzlement and bribery or an emotional breakdown, the CEO role, no doubt is one that wears top administrators thin.

Kenneth Cohn, a practicing general surgeon and Hospital Impact contributor, wrote in a recent blog post, "[W]e need to bring attention to burnout at all levels in the healthcare profession to make it better."

Cohn suggested hospitals regularly monitor the health and well-being of its workers, including conducting anonymous surveys to gauge morale, coaching and counseling, and keeping an eye out for symptoms of stress.

"It is in the best interests of patients, employees and healthcare professionals for institutions to take an active role in monitoring and improving the well-being of their workforce," Cohn wrote.

In anticipation of the reader letters I'll get for this editorial, I'll conclude by saying that, of course, not only CEOs who have family problems succumb to scheming; in fact, most thrive to make their institutions the best they can in providing quality patient care even under enormous pressure.

It's the outliers that I wonder about and what makes them scam the system. I encourage readers to share your thoughts by commenting below. - Karen (@FierceHealth)