After joining his hometown hospital five years ago to engineer a financial and performance turnaround, Keith Hobbs will depart USC Verdugo Hills Hospital in March after accepting the top job at Torrance Memorial Medical Center.
Hobbs announced his decision to hospital staff last week, and named current Chief Medical Officer Dr. Armand Dorian as the interim CEO. In an interview this week, Hobbs — who grew up in La Crescenta and graduated from Crescenta Valley High School — agreed the transition was bittersweet in many ways, not least of which because he wasn’t actively looking to leave this job.
“It was a very difficult decision to ultimately decide to leave. It was sort of a perfect opportunity that I wasn’t looking for,” he said. “Ultimately I took an interview and it ended up being the perfect opportunity. That’s what it took for me to be willing to leave something I’m so passionate about and love.”
Hobbs was brought in as the leader of USC-VHH in January 2016, nearly three years after USC acquired the 158-bed institution. Prior to the purchase, the hospital had fallen into a period of financial and operational issues and had had trouble investing in updated facilities. Hobbs brought with him nearly two dozen years of background in administration at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, where he was in charge of ancillary services, support services and the supply chain for the preceding 14 years.
“To come back into the community after spending 23 years at CHLA and having the community embrace my wife and I, embrace the hospital and changes we were going to make, bringing in leaders that will continue to transform this hospital in the future … it was just an amazing ride and journey over the last five years,” Hobbs said.
Hobbs helped to shepherd a period of transformation for the community hospital. Upgrades to its operating room include a pair of so-called da Vinci Surgical System robots — $2 million apiece — which allow for minimally invasive surgeries via remote control by a surgeon. The emergency department also went through a structural overhaul and posted a 31% growth in visitations from 2014 to 2019.
In 2018, the hospital unveiled a $3 million neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, which provides crucial high-level care options for ill newborns or those born premature. Those upgrades also improved the existing maternity options there.
“We’ve seen our birth rates grow by over 60% since we completed the NICU build,” Hobbs said. “It included a refresh of our labor and delivery area and the addition of our laborists.”
Hospital officials hope to break ground on a new catheterization laboratory, or cath lab, in the coming weeks and also start construction on a new ambulatory surgery center later this year.
“When I arrived, we were at the beginning of that transformation,” Hobbs said. “USC’s put in over $40 million in capital improvements since its acquisition and we’ve got about $20 million more coming over the next couple years. The goal for me over the last five years was to set a course for this hospital to be an integral part of the community for years to come.”
Perhaps more importantly, at least in Hobbs’ mind, was the leadership team he helped assemble in his time, one that makes him more comfortable leaving USC-VHH for a new opportunity. This team includes Dorian, who was retained after joining then-Verdugo Hills Hospital in 2003; Mary Virgallito, the director of patient safety who joined in September 2016 after leaving CHLA; Chief Operating Officer Kenny Pawlek, who also left CHLA to join in March 2016; and Patricia Sung, the infection control officer who joined from LAC+USC Medical Center.
“No one individual can say, ‘I’ve accomplished this.’ It’s really been a team effort from leadership and with the investments we’ve made over time,” Hobbs said. “The leadership team that I leave behind is, I think, the best that this hospital has ever had. They’re going to continue to do amazing things.”
Dorian, who got his start in the hospital’s emergency room, said he was ready to dive into the new roles that come with the territory, even on an interim basis. After earning a master’s degree in medical management through USC in 2018, he was named CMO at the hospital. On top of his seniority there, he additionally recalled his time as a faculty-physician while at UCLA earlier in his career.
“I know all the physicians, all or most of the nurses and have been a part of every leadership group here,” Dorian said Wednesday. “I have a long history of being both faculty-physician and community-physician. I understand all the perspectives from a physician side about what it means to work in a community hospital and also one with an academic affiliation.”
Having been at VHH long before USC bought it, Dorian said Hobbs had set the hospital on a strong trajectory and that it was going in the right direction, in large part because of the leadership team that remains.
“Keith was the right leader for the right time,” Dorian said. “He was the perfect person to come and take an institution that had good bones but had lost its personal touch. When you walk into our hospital now, there is no question that you immediately feel warm. People who work here really care and Keith was part of that transformation.
“He turned the ship around,” he added, “not with just turning the numbers around, but he did it from a culture perspective and we all know culture eats strategy for lunch every day.”
Hobbs, who leaves on March 12, called his immediate successor a “fantastic” leader for the community and had full confidence in the hospital’s future.
“If I had a choice to pick the individual to replace me, Dr. Dorian is definitely No. 1 on my list,” Hobbs said.
For his part, Dorian certainly didn’t close the door on that very possibility, but he did add that he felt anyone on the leadership team there would have been a quality pick for interim CEO.
“I know I’m the interim CEO, but I’m not going to function like a temporary CEO,” he said. “My hands will be on the steering wheel. It’s all about leadership and understanding that it’s not about me. It’s about everybody. I’ve worked at a lot of different hospitals, and the culture here and the team we have — the whole team — is really good. They’re all great leaders themselves.
“I’m going to try to do my best in the interim role,” Dorian added, “and if I do a good job and am the right guy, why not?”