The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a heavy strain on the health care system, but that hasn’t stopped the expansion plans of the state’s hospitals.
One example: In late June, Mercy Hospital Fort Smith announced a $162 million project to expand emergency room capacity from 29 to 50, raise the number of ICU beds from 38 to 64 and add 140 new parking spaces.
The improvements will accommodate 25,000 more emergency patients annually. Mercy, having recently completed a $28.5 million rehabilitation hospital, is expected to break ground on the two-year project in 2022.
“We have had great success attracting top-quality physicians to the River Valley region over the past several years, which allows us to expand services and care for patients who previously left our region,” said Ryan Gehrig, president of Mercy Fort Smith. “As a result, we anticipate growth in all of our key service lines and we are making plans accordingly to meet those needs. The recently announced ER and ICU expansion, along with the newly opened 50-bed rehab hospital, are key components of a long-range growth plan currently underway.”
Gehrig’s northwest Arkansas counterpart, Eric Pianalto, saw the completion of a $247 million expansion at Mercy’s Rogers campus. The linchpin of that project was a seven-story, 100-patient tower, and it also included seven clinics in the surrounding communities.
The timing of the new tower complex could not have been better, Pianalto said. The project was completed in late 2019, just a few short months before the pandemic hit.
“I don’t know what we would have done if we had not expanded,” said Pianalto, the president of Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas. “It allowed us to serve our community better when the pandemic started in earnest in March 2020. The urgency on bed capacity and the hospital is very real right now. Fortunately, we had the foresight to shelve two floors so we have expansion capability that we can access in the short term.”
The continuing population growth in northwest Arkansas has kept the demand for health care services and personnel growing, as well.
Arkansas Children’s Northwest opened its 233,613-SF campus in Springdale in 2018. On July 8, J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. of Lowell donated $5 million to the hospital to help support its further expansion.
That’s because despite new towers and facilities, northwest Arkansas is still playing catch-up with its population. In 2000, the combined population of Washington and Benton counties, the most populous of the region, was 266,000; experts predict it will reach 600,000 within two years.
Officials hope that enough of the new residents will be doctors, nurses and medical technicians. Most industries have complained of a labor shortage, and health care is not immune.
“There was a nationwide shortage of nurses before the pandemic, and the pandemic has placed greater pressure and emphasis on that,” Pianalto said. “We continued to be able to hire nurses and have a good group of nurses, but this labor market [with low unemployment] makes it a challenge for all workforces. It is not different from any other business in northwest Arkansas.
“It was a challenge before the pandemic, and it is going to be a challenge long after the pandemic is over.”
The founding of an osteopathic medical school in Fort Smith and Walmart heiress Alice Walton’s proposed Whole Health School of Medicine in Bentonville are expected to increase the local supply of physicians. The state Legislature approved $12.5 million to fund 92 residencies at Washington Regional Medical Center and the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences’ northwest Arkansas campus in Fayetteville.
“The labor shortage was a critical issue before COVID surfaced, and today it is a crisis situation,” Gehrig said. “Assuming COVID gets under control, the labor shortage will remain our No. 1 threat to responding to the needs of our community. We are pursuing multiple strategies to address the issue now, near and far. This includes creation of new models of care, adoption of new technology to gain efficiencies, assuring trained professionals work at the top of their license and leveraging virtual resources to deliver care in the most appropriate care setting, to name a few.”
Gehrig said Mercy Fort Smith has created two residencies with the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine for family and internal medicine.
“The collaboration and partnership between the area employers, education systems and private entities has been amazing, and I truly believe represents a best practice for others to emulate,” Gehrig said.
The Northwest Arkansas Council, a nonprofit organization of leaders from the business, academic and government sectors, said research has shown the region loses $950 million annually because people seek medical treatment elsewhere. Ryan Cork, who leads the council’s Health Care Transformation Division, said the hospital systems in northwest Arkansas have collaborated to help the supply of care get closer to matching the demand, but there’s still a ways to go.
“I think we are unique in northwest Arkansas where we are a healthy competition,” Cork said. “We all strive to be able to provide excellent local health care so the residents of northwest Arkansas don’t have to leave the state to seek medical care.
“It will take us a while but I absolutely see us getting there. We are doing it smartly by taking incremental steps.”
Health care competition is an interesting concept. Pianalto said competition is more about providing the best care possible because no hospital really roots for another to fail.
“We have great relationships with all the health providers in northwest Arkansas and those across the state,” Pianalto said. “Certainly we do compete on some services. I don’t really worry about competition as much. We set out a plan to meet the community’s needs and do that in the highest quality way we possibly can.”
Cork said one example of the cooperation between systems is a virtual job fair the council will hold later this year. He said the council received a lot of interest from medical professionals during an unrelated recruitment drive, so it decided to play matchmaker between the professionals and the hospitals looking for personnel.
“I can’t stress enough, having worked in other markets, the willingness to coordinate and collaborate and work together at the CEO level and down is unique to us in northwest Arkansas,” Cork said. “It’s absolutely fantastic to have all the health care entities invested in the improvement of patient care in northwest Arkansas. Having been at other places, it is more of that cutthroat, I’m-trying-to-put-you-out-of-business model.”