By Carol Mulligan, sudbury.com
When David McNeil began his nursing career in 1988, he was one of a handful of male nurses. He was drawn to the profession when he was studying natural sciences and questioning the career he would have in that field.
A self-described practical sort, McNeil listened to a friend’s suggestion to try nursing. It was a move that served McNeil and Sudbury well.
One of the first challenges McNeil faced as a male in a mostly female profession was finding uniforms. He couldn’t find any so his mother made him his first one, McNeil said in an interview Wednesday.
McNeil won’t likely have difficulty finding a smart business suit to wear when he takes up duties as president and chief executive officer of Brant Community Healthcare System on Dec. 10. McNeil will oversee the operation of two hospitals within the system, one in Brantford and a smaller one in Paris.
McNeil, 55, has never questioned his choice of career. Working on the front lines, he met his wife, Louise McNeil, a registered nurse and union leader with the North East Local Health Integration Network.
He quickly rose to administrative positions within Sudbury’s hospital system, along the way earning a master’s in health administration and a PhD in rural and northern health at Laurentian University. Before joining the hospital as a nurse, McNeil worked in Attawapiskat.
He rose to become vice-president and chief nursing executive at Health Sciences North and in January of this year was named senior vice-president of patient experience and digital transformation at HSN.
McNeil will work in Sudbury until Dec. 7, moving forward with the province’s health information technology renewal strategy. That will usher in electronic records and create a single integrated medical record for every hospital in the Northeast.
When he began working in Sudbury’s hospitals, he had two part-time jobs, one as a mental health nurse at the now Kirkwood site of HSN and the other in the surgical inpatient unit at the then Laurentian Hospital. At Laurentian, he worked alongside Kelly Latimer, now president of Ontario Nurses’ Association Local 013 at HSN, representing more than 1,000 registered nurses.
When he rose to management ranks, McNeil continued to have a good working relationship with union representatives. While the two sides’ methods may have differed, “we all had the interests of patients” at heart, said McNeil.
He takes pride in having been part of a team that transformed three community hospitals in Sudbury into an academic health sciences centre.
“That, to me, is why I leave HSN with a high degree of satisfaction because I know it’s a highly stable organization now and it will now do great things,” said McNeil.
The low point of his career was when the capital project to merge the city’s three hospitals was plagued with cost overruns and Sudbury Regional Hospital had a $30-million operating deficit in 2001 dollars. The Ministry of Health ordered an operational review of the hospital under the guidance of Graham Scott. McNeil took up his duties as vice-president and chief nursing officer on Scott’s watch.
McNeil credits the hospital’s then president and chief executive officer Vickie Kaminski for leading a management team determined to deal with fiscal and quality challenges. “That was a tough time,” said McNeil, who was responsible for the capital project.
Among other things, McNeil will be remembered for his tireless work to address the large number of alternate level of care patients remaining in acute hospital beds. He sat on several committees tasked with coming up with creative solutions to moving frail elderly patients out of hospital to long-term care beds or back home.
The number of ALC patients has fallen as low as 68 in the first six months of this year from the 120 or more frail, elderly people who routinely languished in hospital. Working with its partners, HSN put processes in place to manage ALC numbers to the extent it can. “It will always be a challenge,” said McNeil, “but we’ve done good work here at HSN.”
The move to heading a health care organization is the next natural step in his career, said McNeil.
It’s a big change personally and professionally and he is excited about it. He will leave HSN comfortable in the knowledge the hospital is in good hands.
“This is a first-class organization and the community should be proud of it,” he said.
Dr. Peter Zalan is a retired anesthesiologist and a past president of the medical staff at HSN. Zalan worked alongside McNeil for years, and both served on committees to address the ALC situation.
Zalan called McNeil “a bright, dedicated, hard-working individual who truly cares about excellence. When you asked him a question, (Dave) told you frankly the answer, without beating about the bush. When he told you he would do something, you could rely on it.”
Zalan spoke with McNeil on Wednesday and told him: “On one hand, congratulations and the best of wishes for your future. On the other hand, I am sad to see you leave. I will miss you.”
McNeil will take over from Dr. Glenn Bartlett, who has been interim CEO since September 2017. Bonnie Adamson, the provincially appointed supervisor of the system, said the organization is fortunate to have recruited someone with McNeil’s experience and of his calibre.
Adamson was appointed provincial supervisor of Brant Community Healthcare System in September 2017 by the Liberal government after an investigation report cited an “unacceptable failure in both governance and executive leadership” at the organization.
The investigation found the system failed to balance its budget for four consecutive years starting in 2013-2014 The president and CEO of the system was relieved of his duties and the system’s board of directors was dissolved.
Hiring McNeil is another step in the returning the system to a “more normal state after a year of correction and transition,” the system said in a news release announcing McNeil’s appointment.