Two weeks after starting work as medical director at Planned Parenthood of the Inland Northwest, Dr. Kim Thorburn still has to double-check her office phone number when she returns a call.
Otherwise, though, the woman who was publicly fired last fall as health officer for the Spokane Regional Health District says she’s nearly up to speed in a new position that allows her greater latitude to pursue a broad range of community health goals.
Sexually transmitted infections, reproductive decisions and teen pregnancy prevention are top issues for Thorburn, 56. She’ll oversee clinical operations of the agency that treats more than 18,000 clients, mostly young women, each year.
“To me it is one of the most important areas of public health,” said Thorburn.
But the part-time post, which will pay $63,000 a year, is more than just another job.
For Thorburn, who was ousted from a public platform that allowed her to head the state Board of Health, it’s a new vehicle to continue a quarter-century career while remaining in the Inland Northwest.
“We like it here, yes,” said Thorburn, who lives with her husband in Spokane.
For Planned Parenthood officials, hiring Thorburn could elevate the political profile of the local nonprofit affiliate.
“Dr. Kim brings a lot of breadth in public health,” said C.J. Gribble, executive director of the agency. “I count on Dr. Kim being a presence at the national level of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.”
It was Gribble who contacted Thorburn last fall, after health district board members voted to terminate her nine-year contract, citing ongoing and intractable communication problems.
“I really thought this was an opportunity for Planned Parenthood because of Dr. Kim’s sterling reputation,” Gribble said. “I called and said ‘Let’s chat.’ “
Thorburn, who received a $125,000 settlement from the health district, said while she didn’t need the money she’s now making at Planned Parenthood, she did need a position with purpose.
“That’s what I discovered made some difference,” she said.
Among Thorburn’s duties will be expanding the number of agency clinics from five sites to 10 in the next five years, increasing vaccinations and, perhaps, coordinating the use of Spokane patients in national clinical research projects.
Outside of her new position, Thorburn is expanding her profile as well. She’s the host of a new radio program – “Dr. Kim Talks” – on low-power radio station KYRS, and she’s hoping to become a regular consultant and public speaker.
“I’ve got a gig lined up at the Washington State Medical Association,” Thorburn said. The topic? “How to Handle Politically Charged Issues.”
The irony is not lost on Thorburn, whose health district tenure included intemperate e-mails, criticism of her clothing and allegations of shouting matches with board members.
Five months without work offered plenty of time for reflection, said Thorburn, who acknowledged she mourned the loss of her job, which was in jeopardy for two years.
“I probably wasn’t reading the signals early enough,” she said.
Community members who protested Thorburn’s firing said they were pleased at her new career direction.
“Dr. Thorburn is brilliant, and she will make an impact on any agency she joins,” said John Roskelley, a former Spokane County Commissioner and health district board member who hired Thorburn.
Linda Finney, executive director of Leadership Spokane, said Thorburn would be a “good fit” at Planned Parenthood and a welcome presence in the region. “I’m glad we won’t lose her as a leader or a bird watcher,” said Finney, referring to one of Thorburn’s hobbies.
Thorburn said she’s just grateful to be past the contentiousness of last year.
“It’s water under the bridge. I’m moving on,” she said. “They can take my job, but not my community.”