By Gwang S. Han • Guest Columnist
Simply put, I question if there is a problem with the current system at Harris Regional Hospital and Haywood Regional Medical Center, supervised by Carolinas HealthCare in Charlotte. Since retiring in 2007 after 33 years in Sylva specializing in obstetrics and gynecology, I paid little attention to the hospital’s future. Some old patients share their complaints of deteriorating quality care, emergency room problems, or the lack of good doctors; they never complain about the business structure established in merging two hospitals. However, I wonder why and how they arrived at this business model; what triggered it? Did local hospital management, boards of trustees, groups of physicians elect to merge, or did Carolinas HealthCare offer a deal too good to refuse?
The real problem appears loss of revenue for Harris Regional Hospital caused by a continuous drain of patients mostly to Asheville doctors, as stated by Steve Heatherly, Harris Hospital administrator. This has occurred since 2007 and increased almost 25 percent between 2007 and 2010, according to Becky Johnson of The Smoky Mountain News. Hospitals do not admit patients: doctors do. Patients are not stupid and can judge the quality of care they receive, especially women.
So what happened in those two years? Can identifiable causes explain the decline of the Sylva hospital? Did the “loss of a few doctors” cause the large migration of patients? Or was deteriorating quality of care at Harris Regional Hospital not the main reason for people to flee to Asheville for medical care? Was the hospital so poorly run that it needed outside help, or were the replacement doctors in certain specialties not providing the same quality of care people received from those few doctors who left?
The uproar from complaints by a few Sylva physicians appears confined to the business aspect of medical practice, as if recently implemented organizational system is the reason patients go to Asheville. Hospitals do compete; doctors also compete in providing quality medical care. Doctors are the main workhorses and hospitals play supporting roles for physicians to carry out their jobs. Healthy competition between hospitals and between physicians does not lead to a downhill path and death: to the contrary.
The two hospitals must have reasons to elect the “big daddy” approach instead of allowing two not-necessarily-close siblings to pool their energy and financial resources and use their combined synergy to retain their deserved market share instead of worrying about the eventual demise of one or both medical facilities. Size of business offers some advantage with its flexibility to maneuver, deep pockets, and ability to negotiate with insurance companies for remuneration. However, “big daddy” doesn’t have a reason to feel charitable toward these two ducklings (not necessarily ugly). It calculated its “take” by offering mighty financial power and business acumen, namely a bigger business market and bigger referral base. There is some truth in old saying that the friendship between two competing entities is inversely proportional of square of distance. This might have been the reason the hospitals chose Carolinas HealthCare instead Memorial Mission Hospital.
To me, the problem seems that the perfect picture doctors and hospitals have drawn is not what they expected to see and is not a perfect one. Is there someone or some organization to blame for the ugly picture or for the unfair deals as claimed by a few Sylva doctors? Let me remind you that these two hospitals have existed in two different business environments in a geopolitical-business sense and have two different doctors’ groups employing different business models. Perhaps Sylva has the advantage of being located in the bottleneck of two major highways and experienced an earlier introduction of medical specialties than in towns west of Sylva. Haywood has the handicap of being close to Asheville, the capital city of WNC.
The population and industry in Jackson County can’t support the hospital and the number of doctors in Sylva unless they are draw patients from surrounding communities. In fact, a lot of patients the Sylva hospital claims to have lost are not from Jackson County, but those from other communities who sought medical care in Sylva because they found better care than from doctors in their local community or it lacked specialists.
As the first board certified obstetrician and gynecologist west of Asheville, I witnessed on the ground level how people sought better care for their needs. Women are smarter, far more discerning, and more selective in choosing their doctors than men, in general, when looking for quality. The majority of medical decisions in the family are made by the woman in the house. They don’t mind of traveling distances seeking “better care.” Sixty five percent of my patients were not from Jackson County, but I doubt I could have attracted so many patients from different areas unless they thought it better. Most patients came by the word-of-mouth from other people, in fact more than 90 percent.
I think the two hospitals should maintain their separate identities and invest strength and financial resources in areas where they provide the best care: internal medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, and the surgical fields. Harris Hospital has taken many missteps wasting its resources with misguided objectives (one example is purchasing spine table so scarcely used). It would benefit from a modern Women’s Center, including a new labor and delivery room with modern, appealing décor instead of using the 1970s ugly, depressing facility. The year I arrived, about 250 deliveries occurred in the Sylva hospital; at its peak, close to 900 deliveries happened in one year (there were many fewer in Waynesville). I believe almost two- thirds of the deliveries were for people outside of Jackson County. Obviously, field of women’s and children’s health care can be a successful enterprise for this hospital.
In summary I don’t see a problem with the business structure since Harris Hospital has its own boss and administrative system with the help of Carolinas HealthCare. It should work with Haywood County in areas useful for both institutions. The key now is to regain the confidence and trust of people in this area. I kept the following message at the entrance of my office: “Please don’t come to see me unless you have trust in me.” It may take a long time for trust to return, but the two institutions have no other option but to try. Don’t underestimate consumers, clients, or patients and their ability to discern the quality of care or their knowledge of their health issues. Additionally, the residents of Jackson County should be concerned and become more actively involved in this effort. I wish them the very best.
Gwang S. Han, MD, FACOG, is a retired Jackson County physician.