A change in leadership at TEGH

Retiring Toronto East General Hospital president and CEO Rob Devitt, left, is helping his successor, Sarah Downey, right, as she adjusts to her new role leading the hospital through its upcoming redevelopment. PHOTO: Jon Muldoon
Retiring Toronto East General Hospital president and CEO Rob Devitt, left, is helping his successor, Sarah Downey, right, as she adjusts to her new role leading the hospital through its upcoming redevelopment.
PHOTO: Jon Muldoon

There have been more than a few changes at Toronto East General Hospital since president and CEO Rob Devitt first moved into his role in January 2004.

The hospital has added an MRI and a second CT scanner, expanded its youth mental health services, had its emergency department overhauled, and was recently recognized as having the best staff engagement results in Ontario for a community hospital.

From local charity events attracting mostly East End donors, the hospital’s fundraising has expanded to upper crust comedy galas featuring talent like Will Arnett (his father once served on the TEGH board), Chris Rock (sorry, no local roots), and Jerry Seinfeld (ditto – what’s up with that?).

Even something so simple as an interview with the local newspaper now involves dozens of emails, requests for question lists in advance, and a communications consultant sitting in and recording the conversation.

“At the time it just seems like you’re doing your job, then you look back in the rearview mirror, and it’s kind of intimidating just what all’s gone on,” Devitt said, looking back over his tenure.

Devitt says that constant change is just part of the job, however – an attitude he’s hoping to pass on to his successor, Sarah Downey, who started at TEGH on Feb. 23 and will step into her first president and CEO position on April 1.

Of course it hasn’t all been new equipment, expanded departments, and photo ops with NHL players. Some of the smaller changes have had the most impact on patient health.

“We were also one of the first to do post-discharge phone calls. We’d phone patients the day after and just make sure they’re okay,” said Devitt, explaining that while that may be common practice now, it was a novel idea when it was introduced only a few years ago.

Downey, meanwhile, is enjoying a much shorter commute of “exactly two kilometres. Not that I’ve measured it,” she says with a laugh.

Her most recent role was as executive vice president of clinical programs at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

But the demands of a high-profile job on the other side of town haven’t kept her from being involved in her own neighbourhood. Downey sat on the board of Community Care East York – an organization that rented property from TEGH – and when it was absorbed by Woodgreen Community Services, she stepped up to sit on that board as well.

When she heard about Devitt’s impending retirement, she saw a perfect match for her.

“My special interest in the role certainly came from being deeply rooted in this community,” she said. “It’s a hospital my family has used in our time of need.”

Downey’s experience during CAMH’s ongoing major redevelopment will come in handy as TEGH gets set to embark on another change, with the recent completion of fundraising for a new patient care centre. The redeveloped main wing of the hospital will include more than 200 medical and surgical beds, modern technology, more single-bed rooms to combat infection, and units more easily isolated during an outbreak.

Downey says CAMH is about a year ahead of where TEGH is at now, and she knows the new centre is crucial for the hospital. So it’s great to have the rare chance to overlap with a current CEO with a six-week transition period, she said.

“It’s not often you come into these jobs and you’re able to spend time with the person who’s led it for the last 10 years,” said Downey.

It’s common, she joked, that CEOs in healthcare share a common fate: “They often start the same way they finish – fired with enthusiasm.”

Devitt agreed it is a rare opportunity for a hospital leader to coach his or her replacement. As a teacher and mentor to other new leaders, he is helping Downey settle into her new role. However, he does expect a clean break once April arrives.

“I think the best thing a retiring CEO can do for an incoming CEO is just get outta Dodge,” he said.

While he plans to continue some teaching at University of Toronto in the fall, and will travel to the Rockies with his wife once summer kicks in, Devitt said his first order of business this spring will be to accept that he’s actually retired.

“It gives me time to get my head around the fact that starting April 1, I won’t be up so early,” he said. But after a quick second thought, he added with a laugh, “I’ll probably still be up early, I just won’t know where to go.”

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Rob, I can explain as far as letting you know there’s a faux fireplace in a patient lounge on the upper floors at TEGH, which answers the second question. Your guess is as good as mine, though, as to why placing burnt logs in a fake fireplace was considered a solid design decision in the first place.

Fires and bonfires are encouraged by our local Councillor in Ward 32. Smokey bonfires burn unattended for hours in parks right next to children’s playgrounds…why not in the hospital?

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