Dr. Paul Woods has been removed as London Health Sciences Centre’s president and CEO.
Woods is the latest public figure to come under fire for travelling outside of the country amid the novel coronavirus pandemic and during Ontario’s recent provincewide shutdown.
On Friday, LHSC’s board of directors confirmed that Woods had travelled to the United States on five occasions since March, most recently from Dec. 19 to 25.
At that time, the board said it supported Woods’ “continued leadership of LHSC,” suggesting that it was in the “best interest” to keep him as CEO to “maintain stability at the CEO level at such tumultuous times.”
The board of directors appeared to have an about-face, releasing a statement Monday confirming “it has become clear that this situation has affected the confidence of staff, physicians and the community in Dr. Woods’ leadership.”
“I certainly didn’t expect his being terminated, but I’m glad to see that some common sense prevailed and it was quite clear he couldn’t continue on,” said Peter Bergmanis, co-chair of the London Health Coalition, who on Friday called Woods’ actions “inexcusable.”
“We both know that last week it was like the board was fully behind Dr. Woods. And yet here we are on Monday and they’re completely disavowing even the knowledge that he had been going south.”
The board had said Friday that it was “aware Dr. Woods continued to travel for personal reasons given the separation from his immediate family.”
The organization said Woods, who lives alone, “followed public health guidelines” and mitigated risk by driving across the border, staying in one place while in the U.S. and quarantining upon his return.
In Monday’s statement, the board clarified that while it was “aware of Dr. Woods’ personal circumstances,” it was not given advanced notice of, nor did it approve, Woods’ travel outside of Canada.
“There is no process for the Board of a public hospital to approve a chief executive officer’s personal travel,” the statement reads.
“None of the elected directors of the Board of LHSC have travelled outside of Canada since the onset of the pandemic.”
Bergmanis added that many LHSC employees were frustrated and angry after learning of Woods’ travel, especially after Woods sent an internal memo leaked in late November urging staff to hold themselves to “a higher standard” after the organization found ongoing issues when it came to staff taking off masks to eat together in break areas, and failing to socially distance, both outdoors and indoors.
“That is a morale-crushing experience for those people working there. That man had been admonishing them for not properly protecting themselves during meal breaks. And here he goes to the States?” Bergmanis said.
“So many people have been separated from their families, couldn’t even attend weddings or funerals, and he could just do it at a whim? No, he could no longer lead.”
According to Bergmanis, “over 4,000 workers, many of whom are working at London Health Sciences, had signed” petitions over the course of the weekend.
“That really shows you that public pressure was certainly growing.”
Kim Vander Schelde, well-known for her efforts to increase funding for childhood cancer research, started a petition calling for Woods’ resignation that drew over 7,000 signatures in less than three days.
“It was obvious as well that staff were scared to speak up. And so I thought, ‘Well, I’m not scared. I have nothing to do. I’m a citizen. I have a right to speak my mind.’ And so that’s where the petition came from.”
A nurse, who Global News agreed not to identify, said in December that “morale is horrible,” and alleged inadequate space for breaks and a lack of quality personal protective equipment.
“Now, people like Mr. Woods, he’s got his own office so he doesn’t have to worry about that kind of thing,” they said at the time.
LHSC had said additional break spaces had been made available and that LHSC had a “healthy supply of PPE” (personal protective equipment) and is providing “appropriate PPE that’s of medical grade.”
In Monday’s interview, Vander Schelde suggested that she has heard from several employees frustrated over the news of Woods’ travel.
“There’s just too many people that have contacted me confidentially to say, you know, ‘I want to support this. I want to sign this, I want to share this, but I can’t. I’m scared of being fired or being retaliated against,’” Vander Schelde told Global News.
“And that, to me, shows that there is a deeper problem within the London Health Sciences Centre that obviously needs to be addressed.”
Dr. Adam Dukelow, LHSC’s chief medical officer, briefly acknowledged Woods’ departure during Mondays’ COVID-19 media update.
“LHSC will be announcing an interim president and chief executive officer in the coming days. While I understand there is great interest in this topic, it is not the focus of today’s press conference. I and the other senior leaders at LHSC are singularly focused on moving forward and ensuring the stability of the organization during this global pandemic.”
However, Dukelow did speak to the fact that Woods’ dismissal came just days after the departure of vice-president of clinical programs Julie Trpkovski.
“No doubt losing two senior leaders has the potential to be problematic,” Dukelow said.
“However, I am confident, 100 per cent confident, in the senior leadership and most importantly, our front lines, that we will continue to be laser-focused on responding to the pandemic for our community and will continue to provide excellent care.”
In looking forward towards Woods’ replacement, both Bergmanis and Vander Schelde are hoping for someone who will lead by example.
“They need someone who’s a team leader, not someone who dictates and says, ‘Do as I do — or don’t — do.’ We need real leadership in the community. That’s the major hospital centre in the southwest,” Bergmanis said.
“I look forward to a new leader that will probably do the things that should be done correctly and show by example.”
Vander Schelde would like to see someone “that is more comfortable, has more experience wearing scrubs than wearing a suit.”
— with files from Global News’ Sawyer Bogdan, Matthew Trevithick, and Andrew Graham.