For residents of Columbus, it has been hard to not notice the news stories relating to the operational issues at OSU Wexner Medical Center. As a medical billing company located in central-Ohio, we felt that we should explore the departures and power struggles related to Ohio State’s massive healthcare operation.
News stories started appearing in May 2017, when more than 50 faculty members from the Medical Center, including department chairs, division chiefs and professors, sent letters to the university’s leaders criticizing how the school’s medical center was being run.
The main target of this criticism was Dr. Sheldon Retchin, the head of the OSU Wexner Medical Center. Shortly after the sending of these letters, Dr. Retchin resigned as the head of the medical center and took a different position within the university.
Since then, according to OSU’s The Lantern, from January 2017 to February 2018, at least 10 high-ranking department chairs and business leaders have left the OSU medical center for employment somewhere else. This was one of the major concerns voiced in the letters to university leaders. There was a fear that talented scientist and physicians would either leave or avoid OSU due to internal tensions and hostilities.
These fears appear warranted with the September 2017 departure of Dr. Ali Rezai to the University of West Virginia. Dr. Rezai was one of the more famous researchers at OSU, whose groundbreaking work in deep brain stimulation was featured on the front page of publications like the New York Times.
Interestingly, only a few months earlier, the OSU Wexner Medical Center reported a $302 million profit, which was the best financial performance in the center’s history. Over the last year, admissions, surgeries and federal research funding have all increased. This mixture of good and bad news likely led to the resignation of Dr. Michael Caligiuri, the CEO of the James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute, on November of the same year.
As of February, there have been other high-level departures. Jeff Walker who was the senior executive director of the same organization has also resigned and accepted a position in California, while Dr. John Campo and Rhonda Campo are leaving OSU to join other former Buckeyes at West Virginia University.
There are other outside pressures due to the fact that people’s careers are in jeopardy as well as the lingering influence a substantial amount of donated money. Billionaire Les Wexner, chairman and CEO of the L Brands corporation, generously gave the university $100 million in 2011, with the medical center changing its name from Ohio State University Medical Center to the Wexner Medical Center. Uncertainty is not what philanthropist want to see in the institutions that they support.
The school’s medical center encompasses nearly half of Ohio State University’s budget. University Medical Center’s can bring prestige to a school, but they also carry substantial financial risk. Medical centers, in many ways, are held captive by decisions made outside of their control, such as changes in federal law or insurance reimbursement rates.
As local news articles have article pointed out, any abrupt change could devastate a medical center’s finances. “If the med center catches a cold,” as OSU insiders like to say, “the whole university gets sick.”
So what were some of the main complaints about Wexner Medical Center’s direction under Dr. Retchin? Some staff members had concerns about his commitment to the medical center’s mission of education, research and clinical care.
Instead, they felt that the new focus was on the profitability, increasing the number of patients that physicians treat and providing less time for research and education. There are accusations that this increase in clinical workload, combined with uncompetitive salaries, has hindered attempts to recruit new talent. For example, medical oncology staff estimated that their workload has doubled over the last few years.
Since Retchin’s resignation, the school has attempted to engage around 2,500 faculty members, staffers, students and patients in interviews, planning meetings, faculty forums, town halls and department meetings. These meetings have inspired a review of salaries among the institution’s clinical faculty which resulted in raises for 600 to 700 underpaid clinicians.
With an eye to the future, university leaders have publicly stated that they plan to increased the national reputation of their academic medical center. Currently, OSU is ranked 31st in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, but they hope to break the top 20 by 2024. However, to accomplish this feat, the university will need to develop a culture of collaboration and trust between all staff members as well as the separate medical and cancer centers.
Les Wexner told Columbus Monthly that the university’s medical center currently possesses lower-than-average turnover rates and has metrics that are “terrific.” But even with the benefit of great metrics and a low turnover rate, some outside observers would argue that if OSU is going to continue to improve, the university needs to make structural changes and create more unity.
For more detailed information about this story: Doctors Divided: Inside the power struggle at Ohio State’s medical center
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OSU Medical Center Departures