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Porter Hospital’s interim leader promises action

TOM THOMPSON

MIDDLEBURY — Tom Thompson began his career as a healthcare administrator more than three decades ago serving short-term stints as the CEO of small hospitals in the Midwest. This primed him for future, long-term leadership roles at medical institutions from South Dakota to Tennessee.
And now Porter Medical Center becomes the beneficiary of his experience, as Thompson’s career comes full circle to the kinds of temporary posts that built his career foundation. Porter’s new interim president took some time on Thursday to discuss his stewardship plans for Addison County’s healthcare hub, which again finds itself in the market for a new, permanent leader.
Thompson takes over for interim President Dr. Fred Kniffin, who in turn took over for Seleem Choudhury, who left last fall following a plagiarism controversy in October.
Thompson served notice he won’t simply be a caretaker content to keep the PMC engine idling until his successor comes in to rev it up.
“I’m a change person,” he told the Independent. “I’ve been charged with ensuring the organization is ready for its new leader when that time comes, and help that person be successful. At the same time, the needs of the organization and the community don’t go on hold while the new guy is in place.”
Along with guiding PMC’s ongoing transition to a new Epic electronic health records system, Thompson promised to lead an update of the institution’s strategic plan — a blueprint for change and upgrades in policies, facilities and amenities at an organization that includes Porter Hospital, Helen Porter Rehabilitation & Nursing, and a dozen affiliated medical practices.
“A lot of (the strategic plan update) is driven by the fact that we have a lot of people here with a lot of energy and ambition to help this organization progress,” Thompson said. “But we have so many things and ideas out there, we need to focus on how to move those things forward in a prioritized manner. We can put those systems in place so we can identify and show the whole organization, ‘Here’s where we’re headed,’ and put the systems in place to manage those over time.“
The process will involve as many PMC stakeholders as possible, according to Thompson.

EXTENSIVE BACKGROUND
Thompson has been goal-oriented during a 37-year career in healthcare management. He served as the president/CEO of six hospitals from 1989 to June of 2019. He most recently served as the President of Regina Hospital in Hasting, Minnesota (part of the Allina Health Network).
While at Regina, Thompson led the organization in setting and achieving significant goals to enhance patient care, patient safety, patient satisfaction and employee engagement, and advanced programming in each clinical service line, including a new cancer center, pain clinic and extensive telemedicine programming.
Thompson is confident he can help PMC with its Epic implementation, having had experience integrating new software in community hospitals. And he said he knows the value that new technology can bring.
“It’s obviously a huge investment of time and energy and passion for the organization,” he said. “It is all-consuming at some levels.”
Thompson will also help Porter make a fairly significant, short-term change: The relocation of Middlebury Pediatric Primary Care Practice from Exchange Street into the Collins building on PMC campus. In turn, Middlebury Family Health will be moving to the impending Exchange Street vacancy.
“That’s a very complicated and important project,” Porter spokesman Ron Hallman said, adding the transition will occur during a single weekend in May.
“We didn’t think that Epic was enough of a challenge, so we thought we’d move two entire practices at the same time,” Thompson chuckled.
It has indeed been a whirlwind orientation for Thompson, who arrived on campus Feb. 3 and is still becoming acquainted with the many people, practices and policies that are suddenly in his charge.
“There’s not an un-booked moment in the day, and that’s my own doing,” Thompson said. “People have been incredibly receptive and willing to help me along the way. The senior leadership team is very well-prepared to communicate priorities and plans to me.”

COMING TO VERMONT
This is his first job in New England and the first time he has spent significant time in Vermont. While he has the option in his contract of making frequent visits to the Midwest, he’s decided to lay down some strong temporary roots in the Middlebury area. He and his spouse and their pets are living in a rented home in Addison County.
“We did this with the intent that we would invest in the community,” he said. “It’s pretty important to embed yourself. It’s a good way of learning the community and the vibe. It’s fun to learn.”
Thompson learned about the PMC interim post through an organization that recruits hospital leaders.
“They contacted me and said, ‘We have an organization that’s affiliated with a larger health system in the Northeast that’s looking for someone for a longer-term engagement,’” he said.
He became enthused about the PMC opening in part because he had previously led small hospitals that had recently affiliated with a larger health system. PMC chose to affiliate with the University of Vermont Health Network in 2017.
“I’ve been involved in community health system work for 30 years as a CEO, so the ‘Porters’ of this world have always been the ‘sweet spot’ for me,” Thompson said.
He’s been impressed thus far with the quality of workers at Porter.
“The people are an incredible strength,” he said. “This community and region is very fortunate to have Porter. And I’ve been very impressed with the commitment of the network leadership to Porter and its success. They haven’t lost sight of what we’re doing here, and they are supportive of our interests and needs.”
Thompson hasn’t put a cap on the amount of time he can spend helming PMC. And that’s good news for those presiding over the search for a new, permanent Porter president.
“I’m open and receptive to whatever the organization desires of me,” Thompson said. “My family has great flexibility with that. As long as they feel I can make a difference, I’ll be willing to help.”
Hallman said Thompson is already making an impact.
“He has acclimated himself incredibly into the organization,” he said. “He’s very thoughtful, smart and kind and accessible. I think we’re fortunate to have someone with his experience and his personality slide right in and help us define some of our strategic goals and take advantage of his background with electronic health records implementation, with his background of integrating small community hospitals into larger networks.”
Sivan Cotel is chairman of the PMC board.
“It’s already been great to have Tom here,” he said in an email exchange with the Independent. “His perspective based on extensive previous career experience has been very impressive, and it’s also wonderful to see how quickly he’s gotten involved and is actively helping out on all levels.”
Having an experienced interim in command gives the PMC board more freedom to conduct a careful, deliberative search for a new CEO, Cotel said.
“We’re just now getting into the pre-search planning processes,” he said. “One thing that will be very different from the previous searches is that we’ve asked the UVM Health Network to take a more active role and help us make this the most productive search possible.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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