Former Dartmouth-Hitchcock Clinic CEO John Collins Dies at 72

  • Former Dartmouth-Hitchcock Clinic CEO John Collins in a 2007 photograph. (Dartmouth-Hitchcock photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Lebanon — Friends and former colleagues remember former Dartmouth-Hitchcock Clinic CEO John Collins, who died last week, as an effective leader who helped broaden D-H’s reach in northern New England.

He did so through relationships between doctors, hospital administrators and Dartmouth College’s medical school over the course of his three-decade tenure with the organization, former colleagues said in interviews this week.

“He was a terrific strategic thinker,” said Dr. Stephen Plume, who served as president of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Clinic from 1990 to 2000.

Collins, 72, died on Friday in Saint Simons Island, Ga., of complications from heart failure. During his time with Dartmouth-Hitchcock, from the mid-1970s to 2007, Collins helped guide the move of the physician practice to the new medical center in Lebanon from its original home base in the old Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital in Hanover. He also welcomed physicians practicing in Concord, Manchester, Nashua and Keene into the clinic’s fold.

By gradually integrating different functions between the clinic and the hospital, Collins helped bring the doctors and the hospital together as one organization under the D-H umbrella.

“He just kept working on it,” said Peter Johnson, who worked for Collins as chief information officer for about 25 years.

Johnson said he would be thinking about plans for the following day, while Collins “would talk about centuries.”

Collins, who earned his bachelor’s degree at Cornell University, a master’s in public health from Michigan University and a law degree at Georgetown University, first came to the Upper Valley in the 1970s, as part of a research project with the National Institutes of Health, said Dr. Harry Bird, who preceded Plume as the clinic’s president.

“We saw somebody who was amazingly competent,” said Bird, who was on the clinic’s board at the time of Collins’ hiring.

Collins’ interest in health care was motivated by the times he lived in, Johnson said.

“The people that lived at the time were trying to solve the problems of the world,” Johnson said.

Both Johnson and Steve LeBlanc, now D-H’s chief strategy officer who worked as chief operating officer for the clinic under Collins, said Collins gave employees room to do their jobs.

“He always said his job was to try and hire and develop the best people he could and then let them run with it,” LeBlanc said. “He would hold us accountable, but he would trust us.”

Collins served as a mentor to his employees, giving them the attention and time they needed to develop, LeBlanc said.

“He was the guy I would go to,” LeBlanc said. “We’d talk and he would pull out his flip charts ... He was a problem solver.”

Collins didn’t like meetings and bureaucracy was not a part of his management style, Johnson said.

Collins also cared for his employees in small ways. In LeBlanc’s first week on the job, when he was still in his 20s, he was walking from the old Mary Hitchcock building in Hanover to an office in the building that holds the Nugget Theater, and Collins drove up in his station wagon to offer LeBlanc a ride. Collins and his wife also sent LeBlanc and his wife dinner the night after the LeBlancs’ first child was born.

“You know he cared,” LeBlanc said.

Collins was amiable with everyone, from the parking attendant to nurses, doctors, trustees and “some visiting muckety-muck,” Plume said. Collins liked to tell jokes and even enjoyed repeating his favorites.

He “didn’t stand on ceremony,” Plume said.

Plume credited Collins’ strategy and vision for helping to shape the tertiary care and academic medical center Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center is today.

One important way he did so was to lead the creation of a self-insurance company for professional liability coverage, which protected the hospital and clinic from fluctuations in rates from malpractice insurers, said Plume, a retired heart surgeon.

In “many places, malpractice is just a terrible specter of a fear,” Plume said.

But D-H’s in-house (or “captive”) insurance program, Hamden Assurance Co., which Collins continued to lead for several years after he retired, helped reduce that fear and saved the organization money, Plume said.

Another part of Collins’ legacy was increasing cooperation between the hospital and clinic. In order to provide close-to-home care to a rural population, Collins had to work in conjunction with the hospital and the medical school.

“We would disagree on things, but we always would figure out a way to make it work,” said James Varnum, who served as president of Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital from 1978 to 2006.

Varnum and Collins, who both received lifetime achievement awards from the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire in 2012, oversaw a period of growth, both of the hospital and the number of physicians working for the practice in the Upper Valley and beyond.

As they grew, it became clear that they needed more space. Space initially was eyed in Hanover, but as Varnum recalls it, town officials essentially told them, “You’re getting too big.”

After much planning, the hospital and clinic relocated to Lebanon in 1991.

In some ways, though, Collins’ vision may have been ahead of his time. Collins helped shape a partnership between D-H and Massachusetts-based Lahey Clinic, which fizzled after a few years.

“It didn’t work,” Johnson said. “Lahey was too big to be affiliated in the same way.”

The affiliation with Lahey folded after the boards of the two organizations couldn’t agree on a common path forward, Johnson said.

“I don’t think it lacked the vision or the direction,” Johnson said. “It was too soon.”

Johnson noted that some clinics, such as Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic and Boston-based Partners HealthCare, have found success through similar collaborations across state lines.

And, as the industry continues to evolve, Johnson said, “those kinds of affiliations ultimately may still be required.”

Similarly, in an edition of Joanne’s Journal — a regular news update from current D-H CEO Joanne Conroy shared with the Valley News ahead of its publication today — Conroy also described the failure of the Lahey collaboration as a “missed opportunity for both organizations,” noting that she can say that with authority since she came to D-H from Lahey.

Even after Collins retired, he continued to dispense advice to D-H leaders, such as LeBlanc, whenever he came through the Upper Valley.

“He really set the strategic direction for the organization,” LeBlanc said. 

In addition to his work at D-H, Collins also served on several boards, including Rutland Regional Medical Center and the United Way of the Upper Valley, which now is part of Granite United Way. He is still listed as a member of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont’s board of directors.

Collins died peacefully at home. He is survived by his wife, Helene Rothermund Collins; two sons; two stepsons; and four grandchildren, among other family.

A remembrance service will be held at a later date in Hanover.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.