David Kilarski with his wife Teri at his farewell reception on June 25, 2019.

David Kilarski with his wife Teri at his farewell reception on June 25, 2019. (Contributed Photograph by Eddie Harris)

Change is the one constant these days in healthcare. New technology, new procedures and new opportunities and challenges with medical coverage and how patients and providers interact are all in flux.

For seven and a half years, outgoing chief executive officer David Kilarski has guided FirstHealth of the Carolinas through a period of transformation in healthcare. During his tenure, the organization has also grown to a health network serving 15 counties and with over 5,200 employees, and has been recognized at the state and national level for its consistent high quality patient safety and satisfaction rankings.

And more changes are on the healthcare horizon as Kilarski says farewell. He announced his retirement last October and will wrap up his work in July.

He will be succeeded by Mickey W. Foster as the health system’s new CEO. Foster’s first day will be July 8.

“My agreement was always to stay until the end of July. I will be available during the transition. I will be at Mickey’s beck and call,” he said, with a smile.

“Dave has been a great leader for FirstHealth of the Carolinas through a time of extraordinary change and challenges in health care,” says Carolyn Helms, chair of FirstHealth Board of Directors. “On behalf of the FirstHealth Board of Directors, I want to express our sincere appreciation to Dave for his dedication and service to FirstHealth and our community. We have been extremely fortunate to have his successful leadership over the last eight years.”

Epic Change

Kilarski said this is the ideal time to “hand the baton off,” as the last few major projects that he initiated have come to fruition.

In terms of dollars spent and the amount of resources involved, FirstHealth rolled out its biggest project to date, in the summer of 2017, with the installation of a new system-wide information technology program. Named Epic, the software links all hospital departments, clinics, specialties and services, and supports a single electronic record of each patient’s entire medical history.

During the 18-month implementation process, about 5,000 FirstHealth staff members were trained to use the new system. Twenty-four classrooms were created and more than 3,000 training sessions were held.

The Epic program is also widely used by many other large hospital systems across the state. That means the single electronic record can be updated and provide a wider view of a patient’s health status and treatment regardless of where they are treated.

Kilarski also oversaw the expansion of services in Lee County with the opening of the new FirstHealth Lee Campus in Sanford. The multi-story medical office building offers primary care and other specialty services, a Convenient Care clinic, and a state-of-the art fitness center.

Asked to list the accomplishment he is most proud of as the chief administrator at FirstHealth, Kilarski said it was the gamble taken in building the Moore Regional Hospital - Hoke Campus.

A Calculated Risk

Hoke had long been acknowledged as one of the largest counties in the state without its own hospital. FirstHealth’s doors opened to patients in October 2013. Located in Raeford, the smaller scale hospital includes a 24-hour-a-day emergency room as well as inpatient beds, an overnight observation unit, surgical services, and a full laboratory among other services.

“Now it is all the rage in healthcare to build a micro-hospital. But, at that time, there was nothing in the literature that said it would work,” Kilarski said. “It has been very successful financially and with high satisfaction with patients. It really filled a need.”

Three years later, in 2016, FirstHealth signed an agreement to acquire Sandhills Regional Medical Center in Richmond County.

“When I first came, one of the things I first noticed was the need for more specialists and primary care physicians, especially around hospitals acquired by FirstHealth,” Kilarski said. “We spent a good deal of time developing strategies into how to get more physicians in these areas.”

“That has helped those communities and it has strengthened Moore Regional with referrals coming in from outlying communities,” he added.

In turn, it has also allowed FirstHealth’s flagship medical facility in Pinehurst to put more emphasis into its specialized care — particularly neurosurgery, complex cardiology, and complex cancer cases — while patients with less complex needs can be administered to in their communities.

A Broad Reach

Across its 15-county reach, FirstHealth has 20 primary care sites including Moore Regional Hospital in Pinehurst, Montgomery Memorial Hospital, Moore Regional Hospital - Richmond, Moore Regional Hospital - Hoke; plus six fitness centers, six Convenient Care clinics, in addition to the Clara McLean Hospitality House and FirstHealth Hospice and Palliative Care, also in Pinehurst.

Looking ahead, Kilarski said the healthcare industry — like so many times before — is going through a transformation.

“The next wave is the whole idea of value-based reimbursement. That will start accelerating in the years to come,” he said, “and it will change the way care is delivered across the continuum.”

He predicts a lot more business will move to the outpatient arena.

“Conditions we consider life-threatening will be treated more like a chronic condition because of new therapies that will be delivered,” he said.

The Lee Campus is an excellent example of this new outlook. The facility is focused on outpatient services coupled with a health and fitness facility.

The near future will be a very exciting time, Kilarski added, saying he envisions Foster will have plenty of work to accomplish on his own ‘to-do’ list.

When he was hired, Kilarski anticipated a five-year run with FirstHealth; however, with the Epic upgrade and Lee County campus still unfinished at that point, he said it didn’t make sense to transition midstream.

Two years later, the timing is finally right.

“Mickey is a super guy and I could not be more happy to hand the baton to him. It makes you feel good when you have worked hard for an organization and the person they bring in behind you, you feel good about with the legacy you’ve left,” he said. “I think FirstHealth is a remarkable health care system.”

“It is one of the reasons Teri and I are retiring here. It is not just climate and the people, but it is the access to wonderful healthcare.”

Contact Laura Douglass at (910) 693-2474 or email laura@thepilot.com

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