Health Care in Northwest Arkansas Responds to Growth

Health Care in Northwest Arkansas Responds to Growth
Rendering of a new, permanent campus for Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Springdale, which is set to open in January 2018. Marcy Doderer, ACH’s president and CEO, said the new facility is being built with future expansion work already in mind.

Eric Pianalto didn’t set out to spend a quarter of a billion dollars; after all, it’s only been a few years since he spent $140 million.

Welcome to the health care industry in northwest Arkansas. Mercy Northwest announced in April it would invest $247 million over five years to expand its Rogers campus, build clinics in underserved areas and establish an internal medicine residency in cooperation with the University of Arkansas for Medical Services. Pianalto, the president of Mercy Northwest Arkansas, said big investments, such as the one his hospital is making, are critical if health care providers are going to have any hope of keeping up with the demands of the region.

Mercy isn’t alone in the investment game. Arkansas Children’s Hospital is in the early stages of building a $167 million hospital in Springdale, and Washington Regional Women’s Health Center is finishing up a $46 million expansion in Fayetteville.

Pianalto said Mercy began to study the future needs of the region two years ago. When Mercy moved into its $140 million Rogers campus in 2008, the expectation was that that expenditure would provide at least a decade-long fix.

But capacity is so tight at Mercy and its clinics, Pianalto said, that accommodating additional services would be impossible. With the population growth of northwest Arkansas showing no signs of abating, demand for services is only going to increase.

“We have to prepare ourselves to meet the needs of a massively growing community,” Pianalto said. “We’ve always chased health care from behind here. The only way to get ahead of it is to make a big investment. If we do it incrementally, we’re going to continue to chase it from behind.”

Future Needs Now

Mike Malone, president of the Northwest Arkansas Council, said the strains of the health care industry because of population growth was one of the major reasons the council held a Health Care Summit in Rogers in April.

Corporate recruiters tell the council that the inadequacy of the region’s health care system poses a problem when they speak with potential employees, Malone said. The summit was part of an effort to get all the major health care players and business leaders on the same page in addressing the problem.

“It was really to write the blueprint for where our health care economy could go,” Malone said. “Lack of available and properly trained workforce is going to be the limiting factor if we don’t figure out how to address it. Some of it is catch-up. The health care infrastructure and health care workforce — we’re really trying to keep with the growing needs. We know we are severely underserved in most of the medical specialties.”

One of those holes was pediatric care, and Arkansas Children’s Hospital hopes to fill that need with its Springdale campus, which is scheduled to open in January 2018. ACH CEO Marcy Doderer said research showed that Benton and Washington counties had a density of 78 children per square mile — compared to 122 for Pulaski County — in 2014.

Doderer said ACH has a comprehensive strategy to provide pediatric care statewide with outpatient clinics and mobile care, but northwest Arkansas’ population justified a substantial investment in a permanent campus.

“The time has come that we invest beyond our outpatient services that we have already operated there for nine years,” Doderer said. “We already serve thousands of children from that part of the state. When I have met with business leaders in northwest Arkansas, especially those who have to recruit executives from across the country, they have commented candidates have said that with all northwest Arkansas has to offer, we lack a children’s hospital to complete the picture.”

Doderer said expansion possibilities are built into the construction plan for the Springdale campus. The original campus will have a 24-bed unit, but Doderer expects a 24-bed expansion in five years.

“I can envision in 20 years’ time that it is a 100-bed hospital,” Doderer said of ACH’s Springdale campus. “It is small to start with, but we are designing it to be easily expandable. One of my biggest fears is because there is such a need and enthusiasm for the project, we’ll open our doors and already be needing to expand. That’s a good problem to have.”

Pianalto said Mercy’s new construction is similarly designed to make more expansion easier in the future.

Doctors and Nurses

It’s one thing to add clinics and hospital beds, but doctors and nurses are also required to treat those additional patients. Part of Mercy’s expansion is a partnership with UAMS and the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks in Fayetteville to fund 24 internal medicine residencies over three years.

UAMS, which opened a northwest campus in Fayetteville in 2007, has 30 family medicine and two psychiatry residencies in the region and more than 200 students in medicine, nursing, pharmacy and the allied health professions.

“There is a wide scope of health care resources, but you’ve got ongoing demand for health professionals,” said UAMS Chancellor Dan Rahn. “That could become a limiting factor for the region’s ability to grow. The best way to assure a pipeline of health professionals in the future is to be in the educational training pipeline. That’s why we established the northwest Arkansas campus. We need more residencies, and that’s challenging because of the finances involved.”

Rahn said UAMS can’t create those programs itself, but he is optimistic because health care providers and business leaders seem to understand the need to work together. He said he didn’t necessarily see that cooperative attitude five years ago.

“We really need a vision from the region as to how to create the resources needed to expand the residencies program in the future,” Rahn said. “I think that the business community has identified the capacity and excellence of the health systems in the region as a major priority for economic development and lifestyle in the future. It’s reason for optimism.”

Malone said providing quality health care is good altruistically, but it is also good business.

“The higher quality of care offered within the region, the better for employees of these companies,” Malone said. “They’re investing for the future and not just for today.” n