Facing the loss of emergency room coverage in cardiology and pulmonology, Hutcheson Medical Center leaders are trying to line up replacement specialists.
"We're working to solve the problem before it becomes a problem," Dr. Steve Perlaky, chief of staff and assistant director of the Hutcheson emergency room, said Tuesday.
Hutcheson will lose its only two intensive care and lung specialists at the end of the year, when Battlefield Pulmonary leaves to join Memorial Hospital.
The ER also is on track to lose on-call cardiology coverage at the end of August, when Dr. Marvin Mills will stop taking calls around the clock.
Mills, who will continue to care for all his own patients, has been the hospital's sole on-call cardiologist since Diagnostic Cardiology Group left the hospital in October. He declined to comment.
"Being the only on-call cardiologist for the length of time he has is a substantial burden," Perlaky said. "Many times I've called him in the middle of the night because there's been a patient with chest pains and he's always been cordial, gracious and willing to help. It's not like he's abandoning us; he's paid his dues."
Perlaky said the hospital could recruit another cardiologist or pay for call coverage on a per-diem basis.
"I don't envision us to be without cardiology Aug. 31. We're working hard to resolve that," he said.
The ER losses would be major blows to Hutcheson. Local doctors have said they would hesitate to admit patients without having specialty coverage for an emergency.
Dr. Magdalena Kowalski with TCFPA Family Medical Center in Ringgold, which has been a major source of patient referrals for Hutcheson, said the practice is waiting on word about cardiology coverage.
"There's no reason for us to be concerned right now, but in another three weeks there will be," she said.
Hutcheson President and CEO Charles Stewart said in an e-mailed statement that the hospital will avoid any lapse in ER coverage.
"We are in discussion with other pulmonary physicians and it is our plan to have secured coverage for our pulmonary patients by the time our contract concludes" with Battlefield Pulmonary, he said. "Dr. Mills and I are having ongoing discussions regarding how we can provide the support and relief he needs to give him the reasonable time off and meet the needs of the hospital."
BRINGING PATIENTS BACK
A partnership with an outside facility appears increasingly likely in order to bring doctors back to Hutcheson, doctors and members of the hospital's three boards have said.
Hutcheson's roster of admitting physicians and employed specialists has dwindled in recent years, as many doctors have affiliated with hospitals in Chattanooga.
Erlanger hospital, Parkridge Medical Center and Memorial Hospital also have expanded into North Georgia, opening satellite offices and clinics there.
To date this year, Hutcheson has averaged 42 patients a day in its 195 beds, and it's losing money.
Low patient counts make it hard to recruit new specialists, and a lack of specialists, in turn, makes it harder to attract patients and referrals, said Dr. Lori Emerson, pathologist and medical director of Hutcheson's laboratory. She is former chairwoman of Hutcheson Medical Center's board and has worked at the hospital since 1992.
"Once you get to a certain point of not having enough patients, it gets to be a vicious cycle where you don't have enough patients to support a specialist," she said. "Really, what we need are doctors of all types. We need to get our doctors back and restore some of the relationships that we've had in the past."
Nevertheless, she noted that patient satisfaction rates are high and Hutcheson ranks among the best in hospital quality measures.
Hutcheson was recognized by the Georgia Medical Care Foundation - the state's Medicare quality improvement organization - for reducing surgical complications, according to a hospital news release on Tuesday.
"It's really ironic that, at the time we're moving up with other measures, we're seeing these declines in volumes, primarily related to the problems with physician relationships," Emerson said.
The loss of paying patients hurts even more because of how many patients Hutcheson treats who can't pay for their care, Perlaky said.
"I do think it's important for people to be aware of the support the hospital has been to the community through the years," he said.
JOINT BOARD MEETING
Last week, the hospital hired Plano, Texas-based Community Hospital Corp. to help determine if there's a way to maintain independence and local control while collaborating with a larger facility.
Community Hospital Corp. President and CEO Mike Williams spoke about partnership possibilities at a joint meeting of the three hospital's boards Monday, said Jim Emberson, a board member of Hutcheson Medical Center Inc., which leases the hospital building from Catoosa County.
"The hospital is not in near as bad a shape as people seem to think it is," Emberson said. "I think we'll look back on it all and say this has been a turning point. I just have a good feeling."
The board of trustees of the Hospital Authority of Walker, Dade and Catoosa counties - which oversees the terms of the hospital's lease - and members of the Hutcheson Health Enterprises board were present at Monday's meeting, as well.
The meeting was held in executive session, so the public could not attend.
Emerson said she believes a partnership with another hospital will be necessary to recruit staff physicians, and she hopes any agreement will retain as many local staff positions and North Georgia-based medical services as possible.
"That is critically important to me, because I love this hospital and this community needs this hospital," she said.
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