In his seven years at the helm of Duke Raleigh Hospital, Doug Vinsel oversaw the transformation of the 186-bed facility from a money-losing community general hospital to a profit center specializing in neuroscience and oncology.
The medical arms race focused on competing for top-flight surgeons and other specialists, which in turn depended on spending millions on state-of-the-art technology and renovations.
A player piano in the renovated hospital’s dining room didn’t hurt, either.
“We had to invest a lot,” Vinsel said Friday. “It’s all about bringing in patients to the organization.”
Vinsel, who retired Dec. 31, reflected Friday on his legacy at what he saw as a “fixer upper” hospital on Wake Forest Road, which he joined in 2006, several years after being passed over for the top job at WakeMed Health and Hospitals.
For the time being, Vinsel, 62, is redirecting his energies to homier activities the ambitious executive neglected when he was studying spreadsheets and cajoling surgeons. He’s playing tennis and golf, cruising around on his Harley-Davidson Softail, and spending more time with his eight grandchildren.
“One of the reasons I want to step aside from professional life is to make myself memorable to them, just like my grandparents did for me,” he said of his grandkids.
The Ohio native plans to lie low for about six months before deciding on future projects, which he plans to keep to a minimum.
“I don’t want to become a recluse,” he said. “But I don’t want to overextend myself.”
He plans to continue as chairman of the Midtown Raleigh Alliance, a position he has held since 2011 with the economic development and civic booster group for North Raleigh and surrounding area.
At Duke Raleigh, which is owned by Duke University Health System, his job was to compete against WakeMed and Rex hospital for doctors with profitable patient loads. The task called for dinner meetings, breakfast confabs, weekend conferences, and sometimes months of negotiations to convince the doctors they should steer their patients for treatment at Duke Raleigh.
He recalls negotiating with a six-doctor surgery practice for nearly two years only to watch the deal slip through his fingers when the physicians “bolted” to rival Rex Hospital. Vinsel estimates that practice was worth millions of dollars in annual revenue to the hospital.
Vinsel’s boss, Bill Fulkerson, said Vinsel has an astute feel for personal relations and conducted himself as a trusted leader.
“He walked around the wards, and talked to nurses and staff all the time,” said Fulkerson, executive vice president at Duke University Health System. “He went to physicians conferences on a regular basis.”
Dev Sangvai, a Durham family practitioner and president elect of the N.C. Medical Society, said Vinsel had a reputation for diplomacy and fairness.
“He’s got that rare quality that can appeal to physicians, patients and fellow administrators,” Sangvai said.
Vinsel, who is fond of sports analogies, compared navigating the Triangle’s competitive health care market to leaving one football team and joining a rival, then playing for keeps against former teammates.
He said the intense competition produces world class health care in one of the nation’s top markets. But the spending binge among hospitals also drove up health care costs here and around the nation.
Vinsel’s total 2010 compensation, the most recent year available, was $617,194.
Duke Raleigh has about 400 doctors in two categories: About half work for Duke University, and the rest are community doctors who are in private practice and are coveted by hospitals because they can send their patients to any local hospital.
Duke University Health System bought Duke Raleigh, then called Raleigh Community Hospital, in 1998, with a strategy of grabbing a fat slice of the Raleigh health care market. As part of its makeover, the hospital stopped delivering babies in 2004.
After Vinsel arrived in late 2006, Duke renovated every patient floor, built an atrium, and replaced the institutional cafeteria with a modern restaurant, gracing the dining room with a salt-water fish tank as a grand centerpiece. The health system added a robotic surgery system and CT scanners to entice doctors to want to practice there.
“You got these guys that are free agents,” he said of community doctors. “You can certainly recruit them with equipment and technology and instrumentation.”