Critics hope new U of C hospital chief can restore trust

  • By Alex Parker
  • Staff Writer
  • August 17, 2009 @ 9:00 AM
James Madara | Credit: University of Chicago

For months, community activists and some doctors have criticised the University of Chicago's Urban Health Initiative as an attempt by the university medical center to shirk its  obligation to treat poor people.

On Friday, the plan's chief architect, medical center CEO James Madara, announced he would step down.

The move raises questions about the future of the initiative. Meanwhile, activists say, it presents an opportunity for the hospital to remake its relationship with the community

“There’s a major PR thing they can do to help show they mean well if they backtrack and try to respond to the criticism and anger people have about these clinics closing and the hospital policy,” says Shannon Bennett, a community organizer with the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization.

Madara’s tenure as CEO, which began in 2006, saw the opening of a new children's hospital, the development of a new state-of-the-art medical pavilion, expansion of research and national accolades for the university’s work.

University President Robert Zimmer praised Madara's role in shaping the controversial Urban Health Initiative, which officials say is an innovative way to promote a healthy society. UCMC has invested millions in collaborating with 30 South Side clinics to provide primary care.

But it was hampered in recent years by internal dissent, the economy and the outcry from community members that the hospital was turning away from the largely poor South Side neighborhoods it has traditionally served. Clinic closures, a lack of communication and a feeling that the hospital does not want to serve the poor has damaged relations in the community, activists say.

But Madara’s departure and the fresh perspective that might come with the new CEO could go a long way in repairing the relationship.

“There’s no question that if a new leader comes in, he or she comes in with a clean slate and the people that had questions or grievances with the previous administration may find a fresh ear to listen (to their complaints),” says Chris Martin, president of CMPR, a Chicago-based public relations agency focusing on health care. “On the other hand, they may not, too.”

A key point will be understanding the role the hospital plays in the community, while working to ensure the hospital’s bottom line is met, says Maryam Kerl, president of Kerl Consulting, a health care administration consultancy based in Southern California.

“It’s really a balance of meeting the community needs, what the hospital needs to continue to survive,” she says. “I would say that in order for the University of Chicago hospital to continue to thrive, (the CEO must understand) that it’s there to serve the needs of the population in the area.”

In recent years, UCMC has rededicated its efforts to fund cutting-edge research projects, and many people feel that has left community members out in the cold.

“For us, it’s never been a reciprocal relationship as far as benefits,” Bennett says. “They control the relationship, and it’s one-sided.”

Alderman Toni Preckwinkle (D-4),  whose ward includes the university, says it will take a large effort by the university to regain the trust of the community.

“I think they have a ways to go to repair the relationships that have been damaged by the controversies in the last couple of years, and in particular, the last six months,” she says.

The new CEO, she says, is being presented with an opportunity.

“A number of times, the university hasn’t handled its community relations very well over the last few years, and I hope it will take the opportunity to improve them,” she says.

Preckwinkle pointed to discussions UCMC has had to integrate its services at Provident Hospital as a way UCMC could start repairing relationships.

The university may find success in mirroring the efforts of St. Anthony Hospital on the city’s West Side. For years, the hospital was bleeding money and leaving beds empty. In 2007, under the direction of a new CEO, the hospital rekindled its relationship with the community, asking leaders what they wanted from St. Anthony.

The hospital’s efforts resulted in a $3 million profit in 2009; in 2007, it lost about $3 million. Perhaps more importantly, it regained the trust of its neighbors.

“It’s an opportune time to really talk to folks who receive the services, talk to community groups, talk to the residents and say, ‘What are some of the things we can do to better the relationship, or sustain the relationship?’” Bennett says.

The U of C has already begun a nationwide search for Madara’s replacement.  Dr. Everett Vokes, chairman of the Department of Medicine, was named interim CEO Friday.


Daily News Staff Writer Alex Parker covers public health. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 17, or alex [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.