Dr. Robert Bell to Become Ontario’s New Deputy Minister of Health

Earlier this week I was very surprised, yet extremely pleased, to learn that Dr. Robert Bell, President and CEO of the Toronto-based University Health Network (UHN) was going to become Ontario’s next Deputy Minister of Health.

On March 26, 2014 Bob posted the following public message about this appointment/transition on his UHN site:

Although it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that we are close friends, I have known Bob for over 20 years and have had many enjoyable and very productive and professional interactions with him over that span of those 2-plus decades. To say that I think very highly of Bob would be a gross understatement.

I first met Bob when I joined the staff of the National Cancer Institute of Canada (NCIC) in 1992 and soon after recruited him to serve on a grant peer review panel. As a surgical oncologist and clinician scientist Bob brought a perspective to grant panels and peer review that was in very short supply: not just that of a bone fide clinician scientist, but in fact an orthopedic surgeon (yes, a surgeon!) who did world-class research.

All of the “surgeon” jokes notwithstanding, Bob was an excellent scientist, a very fair and extremely knowledgeable reviewer, an articulate communicator and all-around great committee person. I enjoyed working with him immensely and so it was no surprise to me when he moved up in 2000 to be the COO of the Princess Margaret Hospital (part of UHN) arguably one of Canada’s best comprehensive cancer centres.

Nor was it a big surprise when he was appointed as President and CEO of the UHN in June 2005.

It most certainly *was* a big surprise to me to learn this week that he will be leaving his CEO position in a couple of months to become Ontario’s next top bureaucrat on the health and long term care file. Perhaps it should not have come as any surprise – he is eminently qualified, and I think he is an inspired choice and I applaud Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews for making this move.

Permit me one small anecdote of a personal nature to illustrate. Back in 2002 when Bob was the COO of Princess Margaret Hospital (PMH), I was going through a bit of a personal reevaluation of my own career for many reasons I will not elaborate here. I sent an email to various colleagues and professional acquaintances to let them know that I was potentially amenable to a career move, and that if they heard of any opportunities that they felt might be suitable, to please either let me know or keep me in mind. Given Bob’s position at PMH I included him in this small “network”.

Most people sent an email back to say, of course they would keep their eyes and ears open etc (what I expected) but Bob’s response was different. He suggested I make an appointment and that we sit down for a face-to-face chat. When we did, there was no finite position that he had in mind, but he asked me many questions about what I was looking for, what did I like to do, what inspired me, what was my vision for cancer research in Canada, and a host of other questions that showed that he was taking *me* very seriously, but which also forced me to look very carefully at my own goals and aspirations. It was one of the best “non-job, non-interviews” I had ever had.

I’m sure that he won’t remember this incident at all, being but one small blip to him no doubt, but it left a lasting impression on me to this day that he cared enough to take an hour or more of his packed day just to help me out and to help me to see things in a different light.

To this day I maintain a real sense of gratitude to Bob for making me feel very worthwhile at a time when I was really questioning my career and my options. In fact I ended up in a challenging, new, and different role at the NCIC a few months later, but this “chat” stood out for me as a stepping stone along the way.

I wish Bob nothing but success in his new role. I am sure that he knows he is taking on a challenge of immense proportions but I have every confidence he will do just fine.

Bob, you are a classy guy and I am delighted that even more people will now be able to benefit from your knowledge and your wisdom. Best of luck in the new job!

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Dr. Robert Bell to Become Ontario’s New Deputy Minister of Health — 4 Comments

  1. I’ve known Bob almost as long as you Michael. He always calls me Jimmy for a reason I’ve yet to determine (no one else does). I’d characterise Bob as someone who understands power and influence and uses it carefully. All too often, power is abused when gained and Bob seems to have empathy for those who don’t have it. This is particularly important when you are head of the largest health system in the country (UHN) and should stand him in good stead as DM for MOHLTC. It is a thankless task with a budget of $50 billion but entrenched constituencies. Bob does bring intimate knowledge of the “other side” and this should help him sniff out the various perverse incentives that riddle our health system. He also recognizes and respects good examples among peers – a trait that makes him naturally collaborative. Too many people feel threatened rather than enabled by peers. It helps to not be paranoid.

    I wish Bob the best of luck. Reengineering our health system is the biggest challenge of the next decade.

  2. Now that’s what i call a real and valuable information. Thanks to earlier comments.:-)
    I work in MOHLTC and admit that I was actually looking for some information about incoming DM to know our leader better.
    My name, I assume, will remain Amit 🙂