Gifford on 6 years as Director of the Department of Health

Providence, RI – This week is officially the end of Dr. David Gifford's term as the Rhode Island Director of the Department of Health. Gifford resigned from the post back in January and is spending his last days on vacation. Before he left, Gifford met with WRNI's Health Care reporter Megan Hall to reflect on his six years at the department.

By lunch time on his last day at work, Dr. David Gifford's office was almost bare.

"I've packed up most of my books and paperwork, I've got a few pictures on the walls, and a few other little mementos I need to pack up," he says.

Among the items Gifford will take with him are some pink ceramic pigs in honor of his work coordinating Rhode Island's response to the spread of H1N1- commonly called swine flu. Rhode Island had the highest H1N1 vaccination rate in the country. It's one of his proudest moments.

"We took on H1N1 in the middle of the worst recession," he says. It was no small feat considering Gifford's budget and staff were cut by about twenty percent. That means he's had to make some tough choices, especially during the flu pandemic.

"We needed nurses to help out, some of the investigation, and so we said we didn't need to inspect a nursing home, or an assisted living," he says. "That was the type of triaging decision we made. And probably the unsung heroes in h1n1 were the people who didn't get involved in H1N1 who ended up carrying the programs in the department."

Gifford will also likely be remembered for his tough stance on medical errors. He fined Rhode Island Hospital twice for mistakes in its operating rooms. Later, an investigation by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services or CMS found no problems with the hospital's surgery teams.

"I think what we tried to do was bring a transparency and a focus on medical errors," he says. "One of the unintended consequences of this was that we're a poster child for these kinds of errors when we're not."

Gifford says despite the fact that medical errors in Rhode Island are similar to rates in other states, there's no excuse for operating on the wrong body part or leaving objects inside a patient. His says he fined Rhode Island hospital to get the medical community to take a serious look at how to prevent those errors. And that money went to good use.

"They proposed a program to bring all the hospitals together to look at all their policies, to learn and talk to each other and I think that's exactly what we'd like to see done," he says.

Gifford has faced other challenges during his term as the Health Department Director- reviewing merger applications from multiple hospitals, monitoring the financially troubled Landmark Medical center, and overseeing a still unfinished process to choose the state's first medical marijuana retail stores. He says the best advice he can give to the new director is don't be afraid to make tough decisions.

"You're gonna be unpopular no matter what, so make the right decision," he says. "You know, when I was in practice, the best way I avoided malpractice was I just did what I thought was right and explain to my patients and family that I was doing what I thought was right and I brought the same philosophy here."

Dr. David Gifford isn't sure where he'll go from here. He says he's gotten a few offers- some local, some out of state, but he hasn't accepted anything. He's looking forward to working in a position where he'll have to focus less on operating within a tight budget and more on improving the quality and delivery of health care.

But Gifford says his time as director has been a real pleasure and an honor. He knows he'll miss it.

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