Dr. Jack Kitts makes a lifetime of difference at the Ottawa Hospital

In nearly two decades at the helm of the Ottawa Hospital, Dr. Jack Kitts has used a quiet brand of leadership to guide his institution to the front rank of Canadian health-care facilities
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Dr. Jack Kitts is retiring in 2020 after serving nearly two decades as CEO of the Ottawa Hospital. Photo by Mark Holleron

When Dr. Jack Kitts assumed the mantle of CEO of the newly merged Ottawa Hospital on an interim basis 18 years ago, the prognosis for the institution’s long-term success didn’t look good, to put it mildly.

Forged out of the 1998 amalgamation of four separate health-care facilities with four very different cultures, the Ottawa Hospital was wracked with debt and political infighting as the 21st century dawned. The situation ultimately deteriorated to the point where the Ontario government took the then-unheard of step of firing the hospital’s entire board of directors on the July long weekend in 2001. 

A provincially appointed supervisor subsequently turfed the CEO and asked Kitts, then the hospital’s vice-president of medical affairs, to take over.

Welcome aboard the Titanic, captain.

By now, nearly everyone in Ottawa – especially the countless residents and their grateful loved ones who’ve benefited from its services in the years since – knows the outcome of that “temporary” appointment. In nearly two decades as the Ottawa Hospital’s leader, Kitts, the anesthesiologist-turned-administrator, has helped build his organization into one of the country’s most renowned patient care and medical research facilities.

For all that the 64-year-old father of three has done to help promote and deliver world-class patient care in the Ottawa region, Kitts is the 2019 recipient of OBJ and the Ottawa Board of Trade’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

True to his nature, Kitts instantly hands off credit for his myriad of accomplishments to others – especially his late mother Joan, who raised nine children as a single parent after Kitts’s father died when he was 16, and his wife of 38 years, Lian.

“Women in my life have been a big influence,” he says with a grin. “When the supervisor asked me to be the CEO of the hospital, I went home and said to (Lian), ‘I can’t believe he asked me,’ and she said, ‘Well, Jack, if you have an opportunity to lead and you don’t take it, are you willing to follow whoever does take it?’ I had to think a lot about that. That little pick-me-up talk really influenced me.”

Kitts’s quiet determination had already fuelled his steady climb up the ladder. After joining the Civic hospital as an anesthesiologist in 1988, he gradually took on more and more important positions, from the Department of Anesthesia’s research director to the first medical director of the hospital’s Preoperative Assessment Clinic in 1992. Three years later, he was appointed the Civic’s chief of anesthesia before being promoted to vice-president of medical affairs in 1998, the same year the Civic, General, Riverside and Grace hospitals were amalgamated by provincial decree.

Upon moving into the CEO’s office, Kitts immediately got to work on redefining the hospital’s core mission. He felt the disparate institutions that comprised the Ottawa Hospital needed a wakeup call to deliver the best possible health care to residents.  

“I had the attitude that if you live in the nation’s capital, you should expect and receive world-class health care. We can do that,” he says firmly. “But we have to believe it, and we have to take the steps to do it.”

Acts of kindness

Kitts established three key priorities: boosting staff morale, getting the hospital’s finances in order and, most importantly, improving patient care.

Kitts sensed that there was something missing in the hospital’s level of care. It’s one thing to mend broken bones and perform surgeries, he believes, but quite another to make patients and their loved ones feel like they’re the only people in the room.

“When someone smiles, introduces himself and says, ‘I’ve got your back,’ it really is an act of kindness that will never be forgotten,” Kitts explains. “And nowhere in the metrics do you measure that type of interaction. For me, it’s the whole experience.”

Kitts, who was named the hospital’s permanent CEO in 2002, set out to do just that. It wasn’t always a straightforward progression, however. While the institution consistently garnered positive ratings above 90 per cent in patient satisfaction surveys, those assessments included everything from good to excellent. Kitts wanted a more specific breakdown.

“The question was, ‘How many gave us excellent?’ It was 36 per cent,” he says. “So we said, let’s focus on bringing the excellent up.”

A particular catalyst was a letter from the husband of a woman who underwent a hip replacement at the hospital in 2007. Kitts – who says he reads and responds to every letter or email he receives from patients and their families, good experience or bad – took the man’s words to heart.

“Basically, what he told me was, ‘You treated her, you didn’t have any errors or complications, she got a state-of-the-art hip, she’s walking, she’s home,’” he recalls. “And so from a hospital CEO lens, well, what’s the problem? Then he described how they felt during the four days in hospital, where it seemed that nobody took the time to ask them how they were doing or whether they could help. It was almost like the patient wasn’t there.”

The hospital administration began surveying patients and family members, asking them what they could do to make their experience better. Topping the list were things like front-line staff introducing themselves by name, care workers doing shift reports in a patient’s room instead of the hallway, doctors performing rounds at least once a day and nurses calling to check in on patients after they’d been discharged.

“In there, there is nothing that costs money ​– and nothing you have to invest in except ensuring that we all do that,” Kitts says. 

Within half a dozen years, the hospital’s ratio of “excellents” in patient satisfaction surveys had nearly doubled to 70 per cent. 

“It’s amazing how when 70 per cent of your patients have an excellent experience, how that gets around,” he says. “I can’t imagine, but I’d love to see it, what 100 per cent does in both the hospital and the community.”

Kitts himself has gained a reputation for conducting his own hands-on research into the patient experience ​– willingly eating nothing but hospital food for a week after a flood of complaints about its awful taste, for example, and recently enduring a steady dose of the coffee and tea served to patients. (Spoiler alert: he hated it.)

“I said, ‘I’m not going to serve coffee or tea to people that I wouldn’t drink myself,’” he explains. “I’m a huge fan of patient feedback. Any feedback is good feedback.”​

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Medical pioneers

Kitts also set out to beef up the hospital’s research capabilities. Soon after he was appointed CEO, the institution launched an ambitious campaign to raise $100 million to recruit the country’s brightest doctors and researchers. 

“It’s one thing to have all the professionals who can treat and fix and cure, but it’s another thing to have the latest in leading-edge therapies, leading-edge technology, leading-edge research and discovery,” says Kitts. “If you don’t have that research component, I think it’s difficult to claim world-class care.”

In 2007, with the help of countless generous donors, the campaign surpassed its goal. Those funds help the facility lure renowned researchers such as cardiologist Duncan Stewart, a leader in developing gene-based therapies to treat heart disease whose arrival in 2008 paved the way for a wave of new recruits that have made the Ottawa Hospital the country’s third-largest medical research centre. 

Other researchers at the hospital are now pioneering new treatments for a range of diseases. Dr. John Bell, for example, is a world leader in developing procedures that use viruses to target and kill cancer cells while leaving healthy cells unharmed.

“I just can’t keep up, but one thing I know for sure is there will be cures for cancer,” Kitts says. “And my hunch is one of those cures may be found here in Ottawa with John Bell’s team.”

Kitts’s legions of supporters say his contributions to the hospital’s success regularly get overlooked – largely due to the nature of the man himself, who’s never forgotten his small-town roots growing up in the rural eastern Ontario community of Barry’s Bay.

“He’s a Valley guy in the sense that he’s very humble and down-to-earth,” says Tim Kluke, the CEO of the Ottawa Hospital Foundation, who has worked alongside Kitts for the past eight years. 

“That kind of humility I think is exceptional and has I think helped attract the community to him. There’s no ego there.”

Katherine Cotton, the chair of the hospital’s board of directors, says Kitts’s steady hand on the tiller kept the merged institution from going off the rails in those rocky early years. 

“He’s a true community builder. He’s humble to his core and very quick to deflect any praise that comes his way and in turn direct it squarely on other individuals and the teams who deliver health care in the (hospital) every day.”

“He’s a true community builder,” she says. “He’s humble to his core and very quick to deflect any praise that comes his way and in turn direct it squarely on other individuals and the teams who deliver health care in the (hospital) every day.”

Today, Kitts is quietly overseeing the launch of the most ambitious infrastructure project in Ottawa health-care history: the $2-billion campaign to build a new Civic campus at the northeast corner of the Central Experimental Farm on Carling Avenue near Preston Street. The province has committed millions of dollars to early planning for the new facility, which will replace the current building that opened in 1924.

A doctor to his core, Kitts has a gleam in his eye when talking about the future Ottawa super-hospital. He imagines a place where every patient will have his or her own room, a green building with state-of-the-art medical technology on every floor.

But with a targeted completion date of sometime in 2027 at the earliest, the new Civic will also have a new leader. Earlier this year, Kitts announced that he will step down as chief executive next June to make way for younger blood at the top.

“For me, it’s a really exciting time to be in health care,” he says. “When I became the CEO of the Ottawa Hospital 18 years ago, I had the drive, the fire in my belly, the energy, the excitement, and there was a long horizon. So I asked myself to be honest: do I have the same energy, drive, passion – all the things that it’ll take to make the Ottawa Hospital great, and am I the right leader for the time? And while I love what I’m doing and I will miss it dearly, I felt it was the right decision, not only for me but for the hospital, the staff in the hospital and the community we serve. We need a fresh infusion of energy, passion and the will to make it all happen.”

Pushing for better care

Kitts says he has no plans to fully retire, however, explaining he has a passion for health care and wants to keep pushing to make it better in one way or another. Asked what he hopes will be his legacy, he pauses to reflect.

“I will smile and look back fondly on my career if I hear in the community, ‘That Ottawa Hospital, they really treat you like a loved one. They give world-class care and treat you like a loved one.’”

It’s a lofty status he never would have imagined while growing up the second-oldest of nine kids in Barry’s Bay. Before the interview with an OBJ reporter ends, he takes a moment to praise another major influence on his life: his high school guidance counsellor, Bill Houle, who once told a teenager by the name of Jack Kitts he owed it to himself to aim much higher than his stated ambition of working at the local liquor store.

“He didn’t like slackers,” Kitts says with a chuckle. “The word on me was, ‘Not living up to his potential.’”

Houle died a few years ago, and Kitts says he regrets never properly thanking the former teacher for those words of advice that helped change the course of his life. 

“I hope he knew that he had a big part (in my success),” Kitts says quietly.

You needn’t worry, Dr. Kitts. Somewhere right now, Bill Houle is smiling.