Clinic chief turns page, but leaves bookmark

After 21 years here, Duane Lucas-Roberts leaves for the Vancouver (Wash.) Clinic, but he says he isn't gone for keeps.

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WALLA WALLA — When he exits his office for the last time next week, Duane Lucas-Roberts will not be all that concerned whether anyone remembers he was ever there.

As long as the Walla Walla Clinic is viable and healthy, that’s the only legacy he needs, Lucas-Roberts said.

On Sept. 21, the chief operating officer of the medical organization leaves 40 health-care practitioners in Walla Walla for Vancouver, Wash., to take over as head of the 200-provider Vancouver Clinic. Lucas-Roberts will say goodbye to a tenure here that lasted just days shy of 21 years.

Which is considerably longer than Lucas-Roberts initially thought it might, given the pot he stirred up.

He was hired here from his job as assistant administrator at the Eugene Clinic to help a group of doctors big on desire but short on focus, he said.

“They needed help in translating that into action, but the capacity and desire was there.”

Although he was a native of Eugene and was raising his four children there with his wife, Kathleen Lucas-Roberts, the job opening was a chance to move up in his career.

However, it did give him pause that those doing the hiring were interviewing him as the solo contender, Lucas-Roberts said. “They offered me the job and I encouraged them to interview someone else.”

Dr. Phil Morgan was part of the interview committee that made the hiring recommendation. He and others took the top resume and never looked back.

“When you get a ‘fit,’ you can usually feel it,” he said

Lucas-Roberts not only was very articulate, he had already made innovative improvements at the Eugene Clinic, Morgan pointed out.

Yet it was Lucas-Roberts’ “personal presence” that impressed the interview committee, and that bore out again at the Walla Walla Clinic, the physician said. “He persevered and molded, with the physicians, a clinic that met his ideal.”

Walla Walla and the surrounding area turned out to be everything the Lucas-Robertses wanted for family life and community. The couple felt settled and expected to retire here.

Seven doctors had founded Walla Walla Clinic in 1936. In 1950 they moved the business to its home on Tietan Street with a dream of adding types of practices that would well serve the people of this Valley, Lucas-Roberts said. “They bought seven acres and for 50 years, half of this was a pretty rough-looking field. But they had a vision and in the last 10 years we filled this place up.”

As an agent of change, Lucas-Roberts had his work cut out for him. First on the list was making employees feel connected with each other and the mission. He started with learning people’s names as quickly as possible, the administrator said. “People said to me ‘I can’t believe you know my name.’ Isn’t that the way it should be?”

If people don’t feel valued, he explained, they can’t value others. To put money where the mouth was, Lucas-Roberts began a financial incentive program. “To let them not only know ‘You’re doing a good job and here’s your paycheck,’ but do that and ‘here’s a bonus check that correlates with your performance.’”

The clinic competes with a lot of organizations that offer better pay, yet turnover is “very low,” which he attributes to a work culture that is team-oriented and positive.

And not by accident.

“We don’t recruit to fill spots but we recruit for character and for personal qualities … That’s true for doctors and non-doctors. We don’t always get it right, but we get it right a lot. People who don’t (feel) that don’t even make it to first base.”

Getting to that point took a journey of perseverance. Initially a handful of doctors already in place at the clinic resisted the changes Lucas-Roberts brought to the table.

“We had to go through a lot of turmoil,” Lucas-Roberts said. “I spent five years with a small group of very vocal, discontented doctors who made my life hell.” The situation sent him daily to his knees to pray, sometimes screaming for help and direction, he recalled. “Telling (God), ‘You have to do this. I can’t do this anymore.’”

Lucas-Roberts’ plan to incorporate family practitioners into the clinic was especially resisted. “A lot of internal medicine doctors resist family doctors, the “birth to death” providers, he explained.

But the need was obvious and in 1996, became a reality — “one of the many great and successful things we did here,” he said. “I’m stubborn.”

It also propelled some of the physicians to take action and they left Walla Walla Clinic. It was a move that worked well for everyone, Lucas-Roberts said. “That was removing obstacle to change. It was hard when we went through it, but it was a blessing.

“It didn’t kill us. It made us stronger.”

The result was pride in ownership and an entity worthy of sacrificing for and building on, Morgan added. Lucas-Roberts has been called an “ideologue” and tough by his critics, the doctor said. “That’s not really true. He sticks with his principles.”

With the original vision from the clinic’s founding members even more clearly defined, Lucas-Roberts and the physician owners went on to explore how to use the clinic’s extra property to serve Walla Walla. The day surgery center came first, followed by a separate building for pediatrics and family practice, augmented by increased parking space.

Those entities are important to the provision of medicine, the administrator said, but not as important as the people who staff them. “Our surgery center works because of who we staff it with — the commitment of the doctors and staff to service.”

People, and their attitudes about health care, are the glue of the entire organization, Lucas-Roberts added.

Which is just what the Vancouver Clinic recognizes it needs. “They know what we’ve done here, the group culture. They just want to build that cultural aspect.”

As was the case two decades ago, he said, that clinic has the raw materials on hand, it just needs the guy with the thread and needle to sew it in place.

And like 20 years ago, Lucas-Roberts was once again the only applicant sought. He begged them to rethink their idea, even telling them “no, thanks” at first.

He’s 60, after all, and can practically taste retirement, which he is counting on to be delicious, Lucas-Roberts said. The offer came as a surprise because of his age and the size of the group he’s been leading.

As is natural, however, Duane and Kathleen sought divine guidance. When the Vancouver Clinic came back to the table to convince Duane to at least go through the process, the couple was ready to consider taking things one step at a time.

That now means stepping into another challenging role. Not a better role, Lucas-Roberts emphasized. “The grass isn’t greener, it’s just different grass in a bigger field. A different way to close out a career than one would typically choose. But I’ve never been typical.”

As well, Walla Walla Clinic must stay above typical, as its tradition calls for. That will mean navigating the quickly-changing sea of federal health-care and insurance regulations, Lucas-Roberts said.

Because of its smaller size and on-site ownership, the organization is in a better position to flex than many institutions, he feels. “But, also, because we have a strong culture of unified decisions. It’s common for a doctor to stand up in a meeting and say, ‘What is the best thing for the group?’”

As hard as it is the see the clinic administrator leave, he’s been expecting it for years, Morgan said. “He’s had many opportunities to be elsewhere. He’s highly respected among other clinic groups in the Northwest. We’re grateful to have had him around as long as we have.”

The clinic’s current chief financial officer, Kevin Michaelson, has been selected to fill Lucas-Roberts’ shoes.

The couple will continue to keep their home here, using it as headquarters for holidays and family gatherings. “We love Walla Walla. This is the center, this is where our children come home to. We think of this as a deployment, going someplace we want to go, but it’s unlikely we’ll be going there forever.”

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