NWA Health Care's SOS: Help Wanted

Mercy Hospital’s Rogers campus is adding a seven-story tower, and seven new area clinics are also going up. That means Mercy is looking to hire doctors and other employees.
Mercy Hospital’s Rogers campus is adding a seven-story tower, and seven new area clinics are also going up. That means Mercy is looking to hire doctors and other employees. (Beth Hall)

Mercy Hospital President Eric Pianalto laughed about his successful recruiting like a college football coach at an early February signing day ceremony.

Pianalto is overseeing a $247 million expansion project that includes a new seven-story 100-patient tower on Mercy’s Rogers campus and seven new area clinics. All those new services and capabilities mean Mercy needs to hire more personnel to handle the extra work.

Pianalto said Mercy started recruiting physicians and coworkers — what he calls every employee who is not a doctor — four years ago. He estimated Mercy needed 100 new doctors and 1,000 co-workers, no small feat in an area with an unemployment rate of 3 percent, give or take.

So Pianalto was understandably pleased to have just signed a new doctor from Oregon, who will move to the area to set up shop. “We got a five-star out of Oregon,” Pianalto said at the construction topping-off ceremony at Mercy’s new patient tower Sept. 24.

Much like college coaches who recruit high school phenoms with a mix of promises of football glory and academic achievement, Pianalto and other health care executives have to hone their pitches to attract needed personnel to the region. Pianalto said Mercy is about two-thirds of the way to its hiring goals with approximately 60 new doctors and 750 co-workers brought onboard.

“In an area that has a [low] unemployment rate and doesn’t have a dedicated medical school or a lot of training programs, we set out on a journey then,” Pianalto said of the years of planning. “We are as fully staffed as we have ever been because we started really looking at how we recruit and how we retain. Our recruitment is right on schedule, if not ahead of schedule, on physicians and providers.”

Pianalto said his sales pitch is a mix of touting Mercy’s company culture and the amenities of northwest Arkansas.

“It starts with the culture of your institution and being a place that is preferred to work in,” Pianalto said. “You have to create an environment that people are attracted to. We do recruit all over the region and all over the country to bring people here.”

For the Children
Mercy isn’t the only health care organization with big expansion plans in motion in northwest Arkansas. Arkansas Children’s Hospital opened its $167 million 233,000-SF Springdale facility in January, and it’s not manned by robots.

ACH Northwest hired about 35 physicians and more than 300 staff to work at the hospital and associated clinics. ACH Northwest Chief Administrator Trisha Montague said the organization recruited heavily from the surrounding states and has only a few subspecialty physicians remaining to be hired.

It’s a good thing, too, because ACH Northwest said it had served more than 2,200 patients through July.

“Certainly recruiting for health care is a challenge, as it has been for many years,” Montague said. “We are doing pretty well. There was a lot of interest in this hospital. The physician recruitment — we’re still getting excellent applicants for the positions we have left. Nursing recruitment is always a challenge.

“Being a new hospital helps us attract people. We’re filling out positions. Are we filling them as fast as one might hope? Maybe not.”

Hiring new personnel at a hospital — whether a conventional one such as Mercy or a children-specific one like ACH Northwest — isn’t as simple as placing an ad in the newspaper and bringing the best interviewee into the fold. Pianalto said even housekeeping duties at a hospital are intricate and layered with responsibilities; Pianalto called them “environmental service workers.”

“We have 250 different types of positions, from chefs and housekeepers to doctors, technical care-giving skills,” Pianalto said.

“You think about cleaning a hotel room — it’s technical work to ensure it’s clean, but in a hospital a sick person was in that room before. We have to ensure it is sterilized in the right way. We have to train them, and it’s expensive training.”

Montague said ACH is a member of a national program that helps prepare recently graduated registered nurses for the demands of the job.

Montague said the length and expense of training for new personnel fluctuate depending on the position.

Location, Location, Location
The reason for the health care expansion is abundantly clear: Northwest Arkansas just keeps growing.

The population of Washington and Benton counties — the heart of northwest Arkansas — has grown by more than 9 percent in the last five years; the area is now home to more than 500,000 people.

There is no sign of that growth slacking off anytime soon.

So the area expands along Interstate 49, adds more residential subdivisions, claws out more commercial space next to high-traffic areas. And it builds more hospital capacity and clinics.

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“One of my barometers for the health of a community is how the health care providers are expanding,” said Rep. Steve Womack, who represents the 3rd Congressional District and is a former mayor of Rogers. “I have known — because I track age issues and population trends and I have done it for years — that the area is growing and it is also getting younger.

“I am very encouraged by what I see in the expansion of the health care services of the region. That’s one of the key components in continuing to make your area attractive for business and industry expansion, jobs and opportunities.”

One of the driving motivations behind persuading ACH to put a facility in northwest Arkansas was to make the region more attractive to the white-collar, highly educated, highly qualified personnel many of the major companies and businesses were trying to recruit. Potential employees whose children have health issues didn’t want to work in an area when the nearest children’s hospital was hours away in Tulsa or Springfield, Missouri, or Little Rock.

“When I was mayor, I had a senior executive at Walmart kind of joke to me one day, ‘Womack, your job is to provide the kind of community that people from all over the country would want to live in because that’s who we are recruiting.’ We have to have a quality of life and certain amenities that newcomers expect.”

Montague said early indications are that ACH Northwest is, indeed, attracting patients from northwest Arkansas and from Fort Smith and eastern Oklahoma.

“Before we built up here, any number of the businesses up here had expressed [the need] as far as recruiting the top talent,” Montague said. “People who have children and had been involved with other children’s hospitals, that was a question they would ask, ‘Is there a children’s hospital there?’ That was definitely the conversation.”

Pianalto said the tower expansion on Mercy’s campus is about $100 million of the total price tag and the decision to move on the project was made after careful study of the area’s growth metrics. The research found a wealth of health care opportunities and even more projected 10 years down the road.

“It’s the same story up and down the interstate,” Pianalto said. “When we looked at the region, it wasn’t just Benton County or just right here around our hospital. It was looking at the entire region. Thirty-four net new people moving to northwest Arkansas every day since 2000 and there is no sign of that stopping in sight.

“Projections are by 2040 the area has over 1 million people. There is risk in that because hospitals and health systems are very asset-heavy organizations. If we spend $300 million, we can’t afford for growth to stop.”