All different types of emergencies happen at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, as you might imagine.
But perhaps one that hasn’t crossed your mind is when a staff member gets a call to go find a talking fish and take it to the hospital’s CEO.
Don’t feel bad if that one slipped up on you. Chances are, you don’t know a thing about recruiting a doctor.
Yes, come to find out, a talking fish can be quite helpful in the process. Yeah, we’re talking about the same type of talking fish. Those beautiful pieces of art where a plastic fish is mounted on a plaque. You push a button, the fish starts moving, and you find out that Billy the Bass is a baritone.
Gene Meyer, president and CEO of LMH, recalls that he was helping recruit one particular physician a few years ago. Somehow Meyer gets the extremely helpful piece of information that this doctor really likes talking fish. Meyer, of course, does what any good administrator would do. He gets his people working on finding a talking fish so that he can present it as gift to the doctor.
“It worked,” Meyer says with a smile.
Meyer didn’t mention what doctor in Lawrence is a talking fish aficionado, perhaps to preserve the integrity of a local practice. (If a singing fish is the last thing I hear before my surgeon puts me under ... )
Maybe that’s the secret to this whole recruiting thing. Maybe Bill Self has a drawer full of talking fish. No, the NCAA probably would find that, well, fishy.
But make no mistake, there’s no NCAA in the business of recruiting doctors.
“We can talk to our recruits, and we do,” said Sheryle D’Amico, one of LMH’s lead recruiters.
Sometimes LMH will spend time talking to high school students who plan to go into pre-med in hopes that they’ll keep LMH in mind after they complete medical school and residency more than a decade later.
The hospital also has been known to employ undergraduate students at the hospital in hopes that they’ll come back once they have their medical degrees. One new Lawrence doctor was once an admissions clerk at LMH, while another was a lab worker.
And helping the spouse of a doctor find a job is a pretty common occurrence — a big no-no with the NCAA but a big no-problem in the highly competitive business of physician recruitment.
“One of our cardiologists told me recently that he had 30 job opportunities besides ours,” Meyer said.
But perhaps the best sign of the ultra-competitive nature of the business are the actual signs. Dr. Sherri Vaughn, who also recruits physicians for the hospital, said she goes to recruitment fairs across the country and sees where hospitals have signs at their booths offering to pay $100,000 of student loans for doctors who sign on the dotted line.
Some will do more than that. D’Amico said she’s seen hospitals offer to buy a house for a doctor.
“They kind of just skip the cars and go right to the house,” she said.
D’Amico, vice president of the hospital’s physician division, and Vaughn, vice president of medical affairs, are the two LMH employees most frequently assigned to the recruiting trail. And it is a trail. Both said they make most of their calls on evenings and weekends because that’s the only time most doctors have to talk.
“On New Year’s Eve, I was on the phone recruiting an OB physician,” D’Amico said.
(In case you are wondering, there was agreement that endocrinologists generally are the hardest doctors to land. Who knew a doctor who treats diabetes and thyroid conditions is the equivalent of a top-ranked point guard?)
LMH does not give away houses or $100,000 in student loan repayments. The hospital wins its battles the old-fashioned way. It sells doctors on the community, on the medical staff, on the upgrades the hospital has made. The fact that Vaughn is still a practicing physician also is unique in the recruitment world and gets the hospital in a few doors it wouldn’t otherwise.
Sure, there are other things that would help. Almost every recruit — honestly — asks for KU season basketball tickets. Thus far, that’s not something the hospital offers. But they do get an unintentional boost from KU basketball occasionally.
“I was driving one physician’s family around, and we were on the west side of town,” Vaughn recalls. “We drove through Bill Self’s neighborhood, and there came Bill Self down the street. I thought the husband was about to jump out of the sunroof.”
That’s about the extent of Bill Self loaning his recruiting abilities to the hospital, but D’Amico and Vaughn said they do have a Bill Self-like presence in the process.
“He is the Bill Self,” D’Amico said about Meyer.
Granted, at this point in the interview, Meyer was just a thin Sheetrock wall away, and he had stuck his head in the interview about 10 minutes earlier and introduced the analogy.
But I really do think D’Amico and Vaughn meant it.
“He is the closer,” Vaughn said. “He is very good at this. When he starts talking, it becomes very clear that this is not a mom-and-pop shop.”
Meyer says he needs to be good at this. There are many things that must happen to build a high-quality hospital, but if you don’t recruit quality doctors, very little else matters.
“This has to be very near the top of the list of what we do,” Meyer said.
Who would have thought it? In this town, where there is a whole subset of Jayhawk fans who are experts on the next great eighth-grade basketball player at some private academy, there is a recruiting battle that happens here — month after month — that really can be a matter of life and death.
I know the next time I go to my doctor’s office, I’ll look at my doctor a bit differently, keeping an eye out for signs that he may have been a blue-chip recruit once.
But mainly, I’ll be listening for a talking fish.