Trusted adviser tackles ‘toughest’ job

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One of the most trusted advisers to embattled Health Minister Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen was taking over one of the Norwegian health sector’s toughest jobs on Wednesday. Dr Bjørn Erikstein, the new director of Oslo University Hospital, backs Strøm-Erichsen’s controversial merger of Oslo’s largest hospitals but promises to listen to staff complaints.

Dr Bjørn Erikstein is taking on one of the toughest hospital jobs in Norway. PHOTO: Oslo University Hospital

Erikstein is a physician and specialist in oncology who has worked at Norway’s main cancer hospital, Radiumhospitalet, and the country’s largest hospital, Ullevål, both of which are involved in the merger that’s caused so much controversy and many demonstrations and complaints. Erikstein most recently has been a top bureaucrat in the health ministry and thus provides needed support for both the ministry and the agency forcing the unpopular merger through.

He replaces Siri Hatlen, a highly respected leader who resigned in June when she failed to agree with the board over how to deal with massive budget cuts required by the merger. Hatlen had the support of hospital staff, both medical and administrative, but not her own bosses.

It took those bosses six months to find someone to take over her job. Newspaper Aftenposten earlier reported that seven of the eight persons who applied for the job when Hatlen got it did not apply this time. Six persons did, though, and the hospital’s board was relieved the process is over.

“I hope and believe there will be a good dialog between the new director (Erikstein) and the employees,” board chairman Stener Kvinnsland told Aftenposten.

Erikstein, age 59, called the merged Oslo University Hospital (already officially made up of Oslo’s biggest hospitals) “the most exciting health institution in Norway and in the Nordic countries” and claimed he looked forward to be its leader. “The hospital is important for the entire country, and has very talented staff, good patient care and, not least, exciting research and educational operations.”

He acknowledged that his main job will be to “lead a hospital that must adapt to new framework, both economic and organizational, that’s a consequence of the merger.” He said he would “closely study” the overall process, ensure professional delivery amidst the changes made and strive for “good cooperation with the employees’ representatives.”

There’s no question the hospital merger has created major problems involving organizational chaos, doctors complaining they aren’t able to deliver the health care services needed, and patients complaining they were lost in the shuffle. The hospital faces a large budget deficit and has continued to run at a loss every month.

Strøm-Erichsen and her administrators, however, insist the merger will provide efficiencies and a better professional environment in the long run. Erikstein seems to agree, adding that “good and constructive professional discussions” are crucial for carrying out “the changes we’re in the midst of, and which face us.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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