Réal Cloutier retires after leading WRHA through 'unprecedented change'

The head of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority is retiring, ending a 31-year career in health care.

Will remain president and CEO until interim successor appointed

Réal Cloutier was among the first 10 employees to work at the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority when it was created in 1997. (Winnipeg Regional Health Authority)

The head of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority is retiring, ending a 31-year career in health care.

Réal Cloutier made the announcement public on Thursday after first sending a memo to all WRHA staff.

"Although I have been contemplating retirement for some time, I took on the role as CEO because I felt the need to see our organization through a period of important and unprecedented change," he said in the memo, referring to the recent consolidation of health services.

Cloutier, who's 60, said the decision wasn't easy.

"It's extremely difficult. I had to decide 'Am I in this for a longer period of time?' because there is always something more to accomplish. But quite frankly, my family has endured a lot in terms of the time and commitment this job takes, and it's time for them," he said. 

The province's Progressive Conservative government launched an overhaul of Manitoba's health-care system in 2017 with the intent of cutting wait times and finding efficiencies. A number of Winnipeg hospital emergency rooms have either closed or been converted to urgent care centres as part of that overhaul.

While the biggest regional changes have been made, the significant work of provincial transformation is "ramping up and still ahead of us," the memo Cloutier sent to staff says.

The re-election of a Conservative government had no impact on his decision to leave, he said.

"Our plan for consolidation was announced in April 2017. We had always planned to finish the work by the end of 2019. We are in the final throws of finishing that work. It just so happened they moved the election up a year," he said.

Cloutier was officially named WRHA president in October 2018 after serving the position in an interim role for the prior 16 months. He also has been CEO for 2½ years.

Before that, he was the health authority's vice-president and chief operating officer.

He was among the first 10 employees to work at the authority when it was created in 1997.

Cloutier said in his 31 years working in health care, the recent changes are the biggest he's seen, and that has consumed a lot of his personal time and energy.

"Others see me as patient and calm, and I would agree, but the time commitments in these huge changes were immense and that came at a personal cost," he said.

He also acknowledged the change has been hard on front-line staff, as outlined in a follow-up report on the health-care overhaul, which was released this spring. The problems described in that report included a chronic nursing shortage, surgeons threatening to walk off the job and exhausted staff.

"This was an extraordinary time in terms of change, and you feel for the staff and people going through the change," Cloutier said.

"There is no question our staff engagement took a hit. I have never seen any change process that doesn't have that kind of impact. We know that and now we need to spend some time stabilizing. We have to get the nursing vacancy solved. Our process for getting people recruited takes too long."

Were the changes made too quickly?

"I write a regular newsletter to staff and get lots of opinion and feedback. For every person who said it was too quick, there was another group saying it wasn't happening fast enough. I don't know what the right time is. Quick and reckless is not good. Quick to get rid of uncertainty is better. I think we did the latter," he said.

One of the most important things for a leader is to leave at the right time, and this was the right time, Cloutier said.

He has some retirement aspirations, such as building his wife a painter's cottage at the lake, travelling and spending more time with his grandchildren and family.

Most of all, he wants to take time off and rest.

"The WRHA board of directors has been supportive of me and of this decision, and I want to thank them for that support."

Although he has handed in his notice, Cloutier will remain president and CEO until an interim successor is in place.

"The board's top priority now is determining the next steps needed to ensure a seamless transition to new leadership. I am working closely with the board for this transition to occur by the end of the year," his memo says.

"We are very grateful for the enormous contribution Réal has made throughout the course of his career, and in particular through the last two years. We wish him all the very best in his retirement," said Karen Dunlop, chair of the WRHA board of directors.

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