With eyes and ears open, Sunny Eappen is leading the UVM Health Network

Dr. Sunil “Sunny” Eben spent his first weeks working as the new leader of the UVM Health Network across Lake Champlain from Vermont to New York and back, touring all six hospitals under the network’s umbrella. Eben told VTDigger last month that he expects to make the trip more frequently, having vowed to visit every hospital “on a very regular basis.”

The visits would not be as practical as he did during his 14 years as an administrator at a Boston hospital. An obstetric anesthesiologist, Ebben scheduled him each month for one work day and one on-call day at the busy birthing center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. But the purpose is the same: to get a direct, immediate sense of what a typical day is like for staff and patients.

“It really allowed me to get a feel for what it was like to continue working,” said Eben, 56, who started the business. New role as President and CEO On November 28th. Whether it was during a pandemic or during the implementation of a new electronic medical record system, “when people were complaining, I could really understand.”

The desire to meet and listen closely to as many people as possible is a key component of who Sunny Eappen is, according to longtime colleague and recent supervisor Ron Wells, COO of Mass General Brigham and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He believes motivation is part of what makes Eappen so effective.

“He’s a great listener. He’s a quick adapter. He’s ready to take feedback and change course when he needs to do so,” Wells said. “He’s one of the most free-spirited leaders I’ve worked with in academic medicine.”

As Chief of the Department of Emergency Medicine, Wells collaborated with Eappen in streamlining and codifying how anesthesiologists participate in emergency rooms, saving valuable minutes admitting a trauma patient into surgery. In 2018, after moving to an executive role, Wells recruited Ebben to return to Brigham’s to serve as Chief Medical Officer — a position he held at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary.

Wells said the shift from the smaller specialist hospital was a “giant step”, perhaps even larger than the move from Brigham and Women’s Health to UVM Health’s leadership. But Eben took it in stride, according to Wells. “You’d have sworn Sunny had been in this role for five years if you’d met him three weeks after that,” he said.

In fact, in its scope, Brigham’s is slightly larger than the UVM Health network. The first was an expense of $4.5 billion in 2021, about 21,000 employees and 1,000 licensed inpatient beds, while UVM Health’s expense was just under $2.4 billion, with a total of 15,000 employees and 620 licensed inpatient beds. Boston Hospital trains physicians through an affiliation with Harvard Medical School, similar to the relationship between UVM Health and the University of Vermont’s Larner School of Medicine.

Wells said Ebben’s accomplishments at Brigham over the past four years — 10 months of which he served as interim president — have included a complete reorganization of pharmacy operations, making them more patient-friendly and efficient. Eappen also faced some “very difficult problems of professionalism” with sympathy and equality.

“He was really good at it because he always put the patient first,” Wells said. “He always cared about the providers as well, and he cared about them a lot, but the patients were his trump card.”

His model of patient service, Eben says, is his father, a Chicago-area pediatrician in solo training who rarely went a night without getting up to respond to a family with a sick child. Eben’s sympathy and calm demeanor informed of a general tragedy that rocked his young family years before.

In 1997, his eight-month-old son, Matthew, died from the injuries he sustained during a violent attack. Later that year, a British husband, who had been employed to look after the infant and his older brother, was found guilty by a jury of second-degree murder in his death, though the judge reduced the charge and sentence. Eben said the trial attracted international media attention at the time, drawing talk radio commentaries and hate mail directed mostly at his wife, Debbie, an ophthalmologist.

Eben said the loss changed them and shaped their approach to work and family. He put all other concerns into perspective and re-prioritized them. The couple changed their medical practice schedule to part-time in order to share care of their three other children, all of whom are now adults.

They also founded the Matty Eappen Foundation, named after their late son. The all-volunteer organization, of which his wife remains very active, is dedicated to educating the public and medical professionals about abusive head injuries, also called shaken baby syndrome, and supporting victims and their families.

Eben can still feel the balancing effect they both worked to achieve. “I don’t get too stressed out by the things that happen,” he said. “I think it brought a certain sense of peace and calm to me and the people around me, a positivity that I feel happy about.”

These qualities will be an asset as Eappen addresses the financial and workforce challenges facing UVM Health and other hospitals across the state.

The Health Network ended its fiscal year with a $90 million operating loss, largely due to having to pay high rates for traveling clinical staff due to the inability to find enough local workers. What matters most to Eappen is that the hospital’s operating margin is now so low – and has been for a long time – that it has become difficult to invest in the buildings and people needed to deliver quality care to patients.

One result: A report from Vermont Human Services found that it took nearly three months or longer for most people to reach a medical professional at UVM Medical Center, The longest waiting time in the state.

Eben says he sees at least two major areas where the efforts could lead to improvements. First, the system needs more workers, so it must do what it can to make UVM Health a place where doctors and others who support them want to work. This means more projects like Recently announced To build a new 120-unit housing and child care center in South Burlington.

His joining Brigham’s group of part-time doctors in the late 1990s exposed him to issues involving working parents, especially mothers.

“At the time, it was me and 28 women,” Eben said. “The challenges they’ve really shaped the way I think about diversity and equality in the workplace.”

Attracting long-term employees, he said, is also about promoting a mission-driven culture. When you clean a room or serve food, you don’t just do it. “You’re actually helping families and helping individual patients get better,” Eben said. “When you’re working in a back office, you’re not just doing (IT). You make it easier for patients to see the information they need.”

Second, clinicians such as physicians and nurse practitioners can be supported more broadly by community health staff, pharmacists and social workers in the delivery of care, so they can focus on what they are trained to do.

“Patients can connect to the entire health care system, or (a variety of staff in) the office they go to, rather than feeling like it’s just me and the doctor,” he said.

Eben said this holistic view of care is deeply rooted in the UVM health staff he interacted with during his bilateral visits. That they actually see their jobs as supporting the health of entire communities rather than simply reacting to individuals visiting the hospital or doctor’s office is what matters most to him in taking the job.

“The idea that we provide care for everyone, that we are committed to doing so, that the quality of care is the same no matter where you live, what color you are, that is the dream,” Eben said. “It really is a different institution when you start to think this way, that the whole community is ours and we have an obligation to take care of them.”

Mike Fisher, a state healthcare advocate who works for Vermont Legal Aid, welcomes Eappen to a very challenging job. Fisher said his biggest challenge will undoubtedly be meeting the real needs of the state’s largest health system without making care more expensive and inaccessible to Vermonters.

Vermont hospitals often look to the Green Mountain Regulatory Care Board for permission to raise commercial insurance rates as a primary source of new income. The annual health insurance survey in 2021 showed that although only 3% of Vermonters are uninsured, about 40% of those who have insurance are considered uninsured, which means that the cost of premium, deductible and co-payments amounts to more than 10% of Family income. .

“They may really need a rate increase from their point of view, and that rate increase is going to make more Vermonters less able to get the care that they need,” Fisher said. “It’s hard for someone who really wants to do both.”

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