For 25 years, Philip Klim went to work at Rockingham Memorial Hospital, helping fellow area residents through their health challenges.
“I loved working at RMH and was very proud to be a part of it,” said Klim, a retired OB-GYN.
Yet, he said he doesn’t recognize the hospital now, though there are still dedicated and skilled caregivers doing their best.
Medical professionals in the Sentara RMH Medical Center community say a variety of problems at the hospital are creating situations where local residents need to travel out of the area to be cared for by strangers or previous providers who have left the facility.
While the issues have been exacerbated by the pandemic, they’ve been ongoing for a few years, current and former employees say. They also said local leadership has created poor working conditions for medical providers, prompting many to leave.
Sentara RMH has declined to answer 28 questions from the Daily News-Record sent by email on Jan. 14 and forwarded to leadership in the organization by a spokesperson.
Question topics included employee turnover, transparency, leadership, culture and responsibilities, as well as changes to pay and contract conditions. Requests for phone interviews have also been denied.
The former Rockingham Memorial Hospital became a part of the nonprofit Norfolk-based Sentara network in 2011.
Klim said the rise of big business in health care has disrupted the connection between communities and their providers.
“Back in the ‘80s, before corporate medicine, people came here and they stayed here and they worked until they retired,” he said.
Klim had to give up his career at the age of 58 after a second neck surgery in 2007 and thus never worked for Sentara RMH.
Another retired RMH doctor, Fred Fox, first came to Harrisonburg in 1975 and primarily practiced on his own before a short time at RMH prior to its acquisition by Sentara.
“I came to this town because of the quality medical care and its potential and the fact it’s a university town,” the former orthopedic surgeon said.
Fox, too, retired in 2007 like Klim. He also said he never worked for Sentara RMH, but keeps in touch with many in the local health care community. Fox previously served as the president of medical staff, chairman of the executive committee, president of the Rockingham County Medical Society and on the board of directors for the Medical Society of Virginia.
“The most serious thing is the question of being able to attain quality, in-depth medical care that has been expected and that the hospital suggested would be made available. Up to the point Sentara took over, that was pretty well assured,” Fox said.
Fox said Sentara acquiring RMH has had a negative impact on care, but also is just part of the modern economic landscape.
“The community was not expecting the transition to Sentara [ownership], but in terms of the national scene, a standalone hospital is increasingly difficult to maintain, which is another issue,” Fox said.
Sentara leaders issued a statement to the Daily News-Record on Wednesday.
“The number one focus of Sentara RMH Medical Center and the Medical Group throughout these difficult months has been caring for our community, patients and our team members as we continue to navigate the pandemic and now the vaccine roll out,” the statement said. “Our teams have done incredible work to keep our community safe and save lives, and we are grateful for their continued commitment and sacrifices. We are also incredibly grateful and humbled by the tremendous support and graciousness shown to us by our community over this past year. We are proud to be your community hospital.”
“In response to COVID-19 and other existing issues impacting the region, some measures taken to adapt to the current environment have presented challenges,” the statement continued. “However, in any change that have been made, the overarching goal is prioritizing our fellow team members and patients.”
In an internal email obtained by the Daily News-Record in response to a story on the hospital in Wednesday’s edition, President Douglas Moyer thanked staff for their hard work and said Sentara RMH “is a remarkable hospital ... and that’s because of you.” Moyer said the story was “disappointing” because he does “not believe it accurately reflects our hospital, medical group, or team, and I wanted to address this with you personally.”
“Our patients matter. To me and to all leadership, at every level of our organization. While the constant evolution of the healthcare industry means that change is inevitable, we never want to change in a way that sacrifices quality, compassion or the trust of our employees,” Moyer said.
Two current and former employees quoted in Wednesday’s story described contracts offered to employees as “Take it or leave it,” in addition to lacking adequate compensation and responsiveness to workers’ needs and preferences.
“While it is true that in the past 18 months the Ambulatory division, which includes our Medical Group, rolled out new provider contracts within the Ambulatory division, the changes were necessary to ensure all Sentara hospitals can sustain quality healthcare in the communities we serve. Certainly, anytime there’s significant change like this, employees will choose to leave an organization. This is always a challenging situation, and that’s obvious in how it has impacted our community and patients. The Medical Group is committed to recruiting new providers as quickly and efficiently as possible,” Moyer said.
Klim, the retired OB-GYN, said the conditions Sentara RMH has created for staff have led to the severing of ties between the community and the hospital itself. He also said the corporate mindset often impressed onto new hires or forced onto experienced providers doesn’t help.
“I don’t think it’s a true community hospital anymore, though it’s located here,” he said.
In a previous interview, a current Sentara RMH employee said hospital staff believe leadership is alienating patients with its work policies and culture.
“You can do all the advertisements you want, but it’s your neighbors who say, ‘You’ve got a bad knee, see so and so,’” Klim said. “I don’t know if corporate medicine listens to that.”
“To be honest, it makes me sick because of the way the hospital was,” Klim added.
Fox, the former orthopedic surgeon, said many departments have seen long-established caregivers leave as a result of bad leadership.
“That should send a message to someone that management is not doing what it should be doing,” Fox said. “There’s a big hole in orthopedics and urology, and these are mainstay services that should be offered and the community shouldn’t be worried about going out of town for care,” he said.
And current and former employees say workers are not treated fairly, as their ideas for improving care and requests for more work autonomy and pay are sidelined, often by blaming corporate policies or directives.
“I have a great deal of respect for the physicians who are there, and the Sentara administration is not supporting the [workers] or treating them with respect or dignity,” Fox said.
Fox said he has contacted local Sentara RMH board members through various channels to voice his concerns and other complaints he hears from others in the community, to no avail.
“The board has to decide whether it’s going to represent the community,” he said, “or whether they’re basically going to be a puppet of Sentara.”