UPDATE: Medical Center President/CEO Lance Duke resigns post

After nearly two decades with Columbus Regional Healthcare System, Lance Duke has resigned as president and chief executive officer of The Medical Center.

The system notified its employees this morning that Duke had stepped down the day before, according to an email from Columbus Regional spokeswoman Marion Scott.

“Transitions are not always easy, but you have the commitment of the entire leadership team that we will be available to meet your needs and those of our patients,” said the note to the system’s 3,400 full- and part-time staffers.

The system said it plans to begin an immediate search for Duke’s replacement, with new Columbus Regional CEO Chuck Stark moving his office to The Medical Center. He will handle day-to-day duties at the system’s flagship hospital until a successor is found.

Duke, 53, who had been with Columbus Regional since 1993, was passed over for the top position following a nationwide search that culminated with Stark’s hiring. The announcement was made in January, with Stark arriving in early February to replace retired CEO Larry Sanders.

“He was a very serious candidate for the CEO job that Chuck Stark has now,” Columbus Regional Chairman of the Board Gene Demonet said of Duke. “I can understand in not being a successful candidate for that job, that he would want to think about other opportunities ... I think it’s a question that Lance did not feel comfortable, did not want to be in a No. 2 role at this point. And Chuck is just a few years younger than Lance, so there wasn’t any obvious avenue for succession in the near future.”

Stark, 50, came to Columbus from Sandusky, Ohio, where he was president and chief executive officer of Firelands Regional Health System. Scott said he was not available for comment today.

A graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Duke joined Columbus Regional as president and CEO of Phenix Regional Hospital in 1993. He added the job of president and CEO of The Medical Center two years later, although the Phenix City hospital was closed in 2002 because of its deteriorating physical condition and sliding Alabama Medicaid reimbursement rates that hurt it financially.

That left Duke to focus on The Medical Center, although he would often step in to plug holes temporarily at key moments. That included becoming acting CEO of Doctors Hospital after its $89.5 million purchase by Columbus Regional from HCA Inc. in 2008. That same year, he was interim CEO of Hughston Hospital after its $59 million purchase from HCA.

In 2003, with longtime Columbus Regional Chairman and CEO Sanders suffering from colon cancer, Duke stepped up from his executive vice president and chief operating officer role with the system to run the organization.

“Lance did a good job there, and I’m kind of sorry to see him leave,” Demonet said. “But I understand he’s got to look at his future, too ... He was very flexible, very steady, and a committed employee, and did a fine job along the line.”

Duke could not be reached at his Phenix City home this afternoon. After a February news conference at which Columbus Regional and St. Francis Hospital said they were partnering with Mercer University on a medical school, the executive said he was happy in his role with the system.

Demonet said a so-called changing of the guard, with longtime executives Sanders and Duke departing within a short period of time, isn’t necessarily unusual.

“If you’re running a large business, that happens all the time,” he said. “The turnover in CEOs in the hospital industry is pretty high. The average tenure in office is about 3½ or 4 years. So things are always changing.”

The Columbus Regional board chairman also said there is nothing to the notion that Stark is simply sweeping out those long-time staffers he believes he may not be able to get along with as he moves forward at the health-care system.

“I don’t think that was in the thinking. That was one of the things that we talked about when we hired Chuck, and he was certainly willing to work with the folks who are on board now in the senior management team,” he said. “And, obviously, if Lance wasn’t comfortable with his position, Chuck naturally would not want to encourage him to stay on.”

Demonet said he expects the search for a new Medical Center CEO to take at least six months. It will be a national process, he said, with in-house candidates also being considered.

“It is a key position,” he said. “The Medical Center is the flagship of the Columbus Regional system, and we need to make sure that we have the best possible person running it that we can.”

Aside from The Medical Center, Doctors Hospital and Hughston Hospital, the system also operates the John B. Amos Cancer Center and Tidwell Cancer Treatment Center. It also is in a joint venture with HealthSouth in Phenix City at the Regional Rehabilitation Hospital.