Mercy Hospital Fort Smith has hired two neurosurgeons and is spending $10 million to revive its neurosurgery program.
The money will be spent on equipment and on remodeling space on the hospital’s campus for a 16,000-SF Neuroscience Center, said Ryan Gehrig, president of Mercy Hospital Fort Smith.
Mercy also will finish out space at its Mercy Orthopedic Hospital Fort Smith for elective spine surgeries.
The two neurosurgeons are a husband-and-wife team who are completing their residency programs in New York. Drs. Kate and Ken Foxx are expected to start practicing on the hospital campus in August.
The Foxxes can’t get to Fort Smith fast enough. For each of the past two years, more than 700 patients with neurotrauma and 1,500 patients with spine cases have left the Fort Smith area because there weren’t enough neurosurgeons to treat them, Gehrig said. “It’s our responsibility to care for our patients in our service area, and we were basically placing that burden on other community hospitals,” he said.
That wasn’t always the case, however. About 10 years ago, seven neurosurgeons worked in the community, said Dr. David Hunton, Mercy Hospital Fort Smith’s chief medical officer.
But over the years, with surgeons moving out of the area and retirements, that number has fallen. Now there’s one neurosurgeon who covers Mercy’s Fort Smith hospital and has privileges at Baptist Health-Fort Smith. There’s another neurosurgeon who practices exclusively at Baptist Health-Fort Smith. Baptist also said one of its priorities is recruiting more neurosurgeons to the area.
Gehrig said Mercy has tried to hire neurosurgeons “for a long time,” but it couldn’t find top candidates willing to come to Sebastian County.
Other smaller communities have the same problem, Hunton said.
“Neurosurgeons have tended to congregate in larger cities ..., where they get into big groups,” he said. And most of the neurosurgeons often subspecialize. “So those people that are doing the full gamut of neurosurgery are limited and very special,” Hunton said.
Mercy turned to the consulting firm Health Care Futures of Chicago for help recruiting the surgeons. The hospital also partnered with the Mercy Clinic Neurosurgery group in Springfield, Missouri.
“This group’s got such a strong reputation and strong relationships with the various programs that when they opened up the slots, they had a plethora of candidates,” Gehrig said.
The group was involved in the recruitment and vetting of the Foxxes, who are finishing their neurological surgery residencies at the University of Rochester Medical Center, Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York.
Gehrig said the doctors wanted to practice together, which helped Fort Smith because it’s rare for a community to be looking for two neurosurgeons at the same time. It also helped the city that both doctors are from smaller communities, so “Fort Smith was very appealing to them,” he said.
The doctors will be a part of the Springfield group but work exclusively in Fort Smith, and they will be able to rely on the Springfield neurosurgeons for call coverage and professional mentoring, Hunton said. “So it’s not like they’re alone on the frontier,” he said.
The Mercy Health Foundation Fort Smith is helping raise money for the renovations on the hospital campus and the equipment costs. Among the equipment purchased by Mercy is the O-Arm Imaging System for use in surgeries, which cost $1 million. The money for the project also will come from Fort Smith hospital’s parent company, Mercy of Chesterfield, Missouri.
The neurosurgery program “is going to have a tremendous ripple effect throughout the organization,” Gehrig said.