Chief executive Dr Yi Mien Koh (above): ‘I have taken the trust as far as I can’. Below: protesters march against plans to sell off half of the hospital buildings and, right, chairman Steve Hitchins
Published: 21 March, 2014
by ANDREW JOHNSON
THE turmoil at the top of the Whittington Hospital in Highgate intensified with the shock resignation of chief executive Dr Yi Mien Koh on Tuesday.
Dr Koh gave just two weeks’ notice and has no job to go to, leading to speculation that she has clashed with the abrasive new chairman of the trust, Steve Hitchins, who has been accused of being “rude” to her at a meeting.
Dr Koh is the second board member to quit following the public relations disaster of last year’s plans to sell off half of the hospital buildings, including former nurses accommodation – a decision taken without public consultation and overturned after a huge protest campaign.
In August last year, chairman Joe Liddane stepped down in order to care for his elderly parents. The hospital’s head of nursing also left last month, bringing the number of top directors to quit to seven in the past year. Staff at the hospital have complained of a bullying culture and described it as a “sinking ship”.
The hospital is under pressure from Whitehall to cut costs and has unsuccessfully attempted to gain foundation status.
In December, Mr Hitchins, former Lib Dem leader of Islington Council, was controversially appointed chairman of the trust.
Martin Klute, Labour chairman of Islington Council’s health scrutiny committee, added that he had no doubt Dr Koh had quit largely because of Mr Hitchins.
“I’m very saddened and disappointed that she’s decided to resign,” he said. “It’s come suddenly and unexpectedly. Her reasons don’t seem to mirror what’s going on at the hospital. She was right in the middle of, and well on the way to, securing foundation status.”
He added: “I’m absolutely convinced it is to do with Mr Hitchins. I don’t think he was suitable to be the chair of the hospital.”
Following a meeting at Islington town hall last month, Councillor Klute wrote in a letter to the Tribune: “He [Mr Hitchins] turned up uninvited to… the health scrutiny committee at the Town Hall... I had invited hospital chief executive Yi Mien Koh to talk about the resignation of her head of nursing, which as she explained was due to promotion, not frustration with the hospital.
“Mr Hitchins sat himself down on the front bench next to the chief executive and proceeded to interrupt her, cut across her and butt in to answer questions that I had asked her. I had to ask him not to do this. He was rude, confrontational and excessively defensive…”
Mr Hitchins said yesterday (Thursday): “I have been working very closely with Dr Yi Mien Koh since my appointment in January.
“Whittington Health is in a stronger position than many NHS trusts, delivering not only better coordinated care across our services but also on course to meet key national targets, including breaking even at the end of the financial year.
“I would like to thank Dr Koh for taking the trust to where it is today.”
Other board members said that Dr Koh’s position had become untenable after her plans for the future of the Whittington were rejected at the last board meeting, where a series of annual cuts to save £18m were proposed. These were described as “morale-sapping salami slicing” by one member.
The non-executive members kicked out the plans, arguing they were “driven by numbers” rather than health care.
“There is a crisis of confidence at the top of the Whittington,” a board member said. “After their closure plans were so roundly rejected they don’t know how to proceed. There is no strategy so they lurch from one disaster to another. But I do think as well that she has probably decided she can’t work with Steve Hitchins.”
Shirley Franklin, of the Defend the Whittington Hospital Coalition, welcomed Dr Koh’s resignation. “As far as we’re concerned it’s one down, one to go,” she said, calling for Mr Hitchins to step down.
“People are leaving the hospital in droves. It is not thought to be a good place to work. It’s in disarray.”
In a statement, Dr Koh said: “I have had three very happy years at Whittington Health. However, I feel that I have taken the trust as far as I can. Whittington Health needs someone to take the trust forward on its journey to foundation trust.
“I have had a number of approaches and am looking forward to the challenges the opportunities may present. I would like to thank all our hard-working staff for always putting patients and service users first. It has been an honour to lead such a dedicated and passionate group of people whose enthusiasm and care have encouraged and inspired me every day.
“I will miss working with many great colleagues and would like to wish the trust well for its future.”
Mr Hitchins added: “I would like to thank Yi Mien for her hard work, energy and expertise in taking the organisation forward as an integrated care organisation.
“Much progress has been made in coordinating our services with the community and social care. I wish her every success in the future.”
She will be replaced by Simon Pleydell, who will take over as interim chief executive on April 1 while Dr Koh’s successor is recruited.
Mr Pleydell was chief executive at South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust for nine years until 2012. Most recently, he has been working at the NHS Confederation.