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South End meets the hospital’s new CEO

Whidbey General Hospital CEO Tom Tomasino makes his first appearance on South Whidbey Thursday at the senior center. - Brian Kelly / The Record
Whidbey General Hospital CEO Tom Tomasino makes his first appearance on South Whidbey Thursday at the senior center.
— image credit: Brian Kelly / The Record

BAYVIEW — Whidbey General Hospital is losing its patients.

But solving that perennial problem is a priority for the hospital’s new leader, Whidbey General Hospital CEO Tom Tomasino said Thursday.

Tomasino made his first visit to the South End as the hospital’s top guy this week as part of a meet-and-greet session at the Bayview Senior Center. He was named the CEO of Whidbey General in July, after serving for 11 months as an interim CEO for the hospital.

Tomasino made his introduction before a crowd of nearly 20, which included Langley Mayor Paul Samuelson and state Rep. Norma Smith.

“He’s a man of great integrity,” Samuelson told the crowd, and is a man who says what he means, and means it. “I’m grateful to have Tom now on board.”

“It was an obvious good choice for us,” he added.

Hospital Commissioner Grethe Cammermeyer recalled how the hospital’s CEO selection panel ended its search for a new leader at home.

The national search stretched for months. Though Tomasino wasn’t named a finalist at the end of the selection process, every other final candidate declined the job. A three-year contract — one that will likely see him earn a base salary of $230,000 — has been prepared and awaits Tomasino’s signature.

“What came out of it was the best of all worlds,” Cammermeyer said.

Tomasino, however, acknowledged that all was not well at Whidbey General.

He shared a grim statistic for the health of the hospital itself: 61 percent of the island’s in-patients seek healthcare at other facilities.

“That’s a staggering number to me,” he said.

There has also been a three-year decline in surgical services. CEOs at other hospitals are watching Whidbey General, he said, ready to step in and snatch patients.

Tomasino said perceptions are the problem.

“I also know that Whidbey General is a good hospital,” he added. “So I have to question, what is the problem?”

The new hospital boss also acknowledged Whidbey General’s staffing troubles: infighting among the medical team, and the turmoil that arose after the departure of former CEO Scott Rhine.

Also bad for the hospital: the public perception of Whidbey General. Though the hospital gets good scores from patients, surveys have shown few of them would recommend the hospital to a friend. Many patients who could use the Coupeville hospital go to Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett.

The prescription is clear.

“We’ve got to change the perception of Whidbey General Hospital,” Tomasino said.

Tomasino said patient satisfaction scores are very good, and quality of care indicators match up well, too, against other hospitals.

“So if our quality scores are high, and our patient satisfaction scores are better ... why are people going to Providence, instead of coming to Whidbey General?” Tomasino asked.

“Why won’t our community say that this is the hospital we want to come to?”

He said he has heard a lot of comments about the hospital, and most aren’t founded in fact. Unfavorable stories about the hospital more than a decade old or older continue to circulate across Whidbey, leading Tomasino to note: There’s a difference between a satisfied customer and a loyal customer.

The focus of the staff is now on excellence, and creating exceptional experiences for patients.

“We need to focus on excellence. Whidbey General Hospital has got to become an excellent facility. The patient experience, from the time that you walk in the door to the time that you leave, has got to be exceptional,” he said. “That’s the only way we are going to change what the community thinks about us.”

“It’s going to be one patient at a time, telling their neighbors and their friends just as loud as the ones who had the bad experience 15 or 20 years ago are talking about.”

Tomasino said it wasn’t an impossible task.

“I believe in this institution. It is a great facility,” he said. “We have great people working there. I have to convince everyone else on this island that it’s just as great as I believe it is. And I’m there every day.”

The one-hour meeting spanned a wide range of issues, from alternative healthcare providers to the hospital’s successful attempts to attract new surgeons.

Near the end, someone asked Tomasino to give his thoughts on attempts at healthcare reform pending in Congress.

“That’s a political debate I don’t want to get into,” he said.

When pressed, he relented.

“I think everyone needs to be covered. Everyone needs access to healthcare, regardless of your social status.”

“To me, that’s a right that every American should have,” Tomasino said.

“Pragmatically, that also means that the hospital gets reimbursed,” Cammermeyer added.

Costs need to be addressed, Tomasino chipped in. The computer for MRI tests costs $25,000; a single dose of medication for a cancer patient costs the hospital $12,000.

Many at the meeting seemed happy the hospital was taking steps to increase its visibility in the community.

“I just want to say how glad I am to have you down here,” said Rosemary Leahy, the program director at the Bayview Senior Center. “This is wonderful. It really is, for me, a helpful step.”

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