Industry Overview: Healthcare & Medical
We’ve long understood that quality, accessible healthcare is a key aspect of any regimen for a robust economy. Our area’s healthcare and medical industry makes an approximately $1 billion direct contribution to our local GDP, with a total economic impact of $4.5 billion annually.
Russ Tyner, President and CEO of Baptist Health, pointed to the industry’s importance in relation to other major sectors, noting that along with state government, the military and auto manufacturing, healthcare is a “primary economic driver for the River Region.” “Secondly, we are constantly recruiting clinicians and professionals from around the country into the community. We are collectively our region’s greatest ambassadors,” Tyner said. Joe Riley, CEO of Jackson Hospital, offered similar thoughts. “Our team is dedicated to creating healthier communities in the region through service, volunteerism and improving overall health outcomes for those we serve,” he said.
In the face of a global pandemic, the River Region’s healthcare and medical industry has risen from its already prominent position of “important” to absolutely essential. Hospitals alone in the tri-county area employ 6,200 people, with another 6,500 jobs indirectly tied to hospitals, making this segment of the industry significant in terms of its tax base, wages and benefits. Yet, these pillars of our healthcare system are in trouble.
And while it certainly didn’t help, COVID-19 isn’t the main cause of hospital woes, according to Dr. Don Williamson, President and CEO of the Alabama Hospital Association. “We don’t know yet the total negative effects of the virus on hospitals, but the pre-COVID numbers weren’t good, and COVID only made everything worse,” he said.
There’s little doubt the pandemic will only deepen the hole hospitals are in. Preliminary data from a recent Hospital Association survey conducted over six weeks showed that from mid-March to the end of April, Alabama hospitals spent more than $100 million just on costs associated with the virus, purchasing PPE and other supplies, paying overtime and, in some instances, having to hire staffing services. And expenditures have continued in the following months.
There was a major loss of revenue as well. Elective procedures make up a considerable portion of hospitals’ bottom lines, and for a time at the beginning of the pandemic, they were all put on pause. This hit hospitals but also surgeons and other practitioners who perform the procedures.
Tyner got specific on the challenges he and his team have faced, claiming an overload of patients threatened to overwhelm resources. “The sheer volume of patients seeking care in a pandemic environment has presented an exceptional challenge to create the capacity and environment necessary for the significant numbers of COVID-positive patients,” he said. “It has also been difficult to create the environment and capacity necessary for non-COVID patients with cardiac or stroke issues, trauma and the routine care of those with chronic conditions. Offering timely and appropriate care for that population while maintaining an environment free of COVID contamination requires innovation and significant organizational discipline.”
Darrington echoed Tyner, stressing how thin COVID-19 stretched area hospitals when it was at its peak. But HSI has not been overrun with patients, quite the opposite. “Health Services, Inc. has seen a significant reduction in our patient visits. This has hurt us financially,” he said. To adapt, HSI is closely monitoring staffing and supply costs and making necessary adjustments. It has also embraced telemedicine to make vulnerable patients more comfortable in seeking treatment.
To some, this information comes as a surprise, as Dr. Keivan Deravi, President of Economics Research Services, Inc., explained. “You might guess that healthcare would be the last industry negatively affected by a pandemic because of its essential nature in that situation,” he said. “But with the postponement of so many procedures and with the weeks-long closures of some doctor and dentist offices, there have been multiple negative impacts.”
Despite all the current gloomy facts, Williamson noted a bright spot on the horizon; as COVID-19 cases continue to trend down, its adverse effects will begin to be reversed. “There is some positive news. Hospitals lost substantial amounts of money from delaying elective procedures, and those have been turned back on, so that is good,” he said. He remains optimistic about continued progress as well, but cautiously so. “Depending on how COVID-19 goes, if a community has a major outbreak, we may have to restrict those procedures again.”
Tyner is equally encouraged and rightly appreciative of his team, which is 5,600 people strong, praising the grace and strength under pressure that he’s witnessed. “Even under the stress of a persistent global pandemic, local providers remain strong and are performing heroic deeds daily,” he said. “There is nothing normal about what we are all experiencing both in and out of healthcare. But our clinicians and housekeepers, cooks and clerks, doctors and nurses have put their patients’ and the community’s well-being above their own and that of their families. I have never been more proud to be associated with such a dedicated group of high performing and selfless professionals.”
Williamson applauded all of the state’s hospitals, saying he’s been “extraordinarily impressed” with their ability to adapt and flex to meet the needs of the virus while also continuing to provide other necessary care. “We saw them increase ICU beds, shuffle staff and do everything it took to meet demand, and we got through it,” he said.
Riley echoed Williamson and Tyner and expressed appreciation for the backing his team felt from the community. “In collaboration with local businesses and volunteers, our resolve continues to be strong,” he said. “The Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce partnered with businesses and volunteers to ensure that our healthcare heroes were fed, had necessary services and supplies and most importantly, prayers. We continue to be thankful for the outpouring of support.”
We asked the CEOs of the River Region’s major hospitals to share the lowdown on the high-tech equipment they’re currently using to care for their patients.
RUSS TYNER: Baptist Health continues to make significant investments in cutting edge technological capacity. Just a few examples include a fleet of ultraviolet disinfecting robots that are essential to protect patients in the current environment; a system of virtual nursing technology that allows for patient and clinician interaction without face-to-face exposure; surgical robotics; and ultra-modern clinical lab and imaging diagnostic technologies.
JOE RILEY: The Jackson Hospital Wound Care Center uses a comprehensive approach from healthy lifestyle support to hyperbaric oxygen therapy, aiding in the expedited healing of injured tissue and fight against bacterial infections. This is especially beneficial to patients with diabetes.
Facilities and resources are key, but quality people are the foundation of quality healthcare, and getting enough good doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals to come here is a full-time job. At Jackson Hospital & Clinic, it’s Hannah Chadee’s job, and she’s got her work cut out for her. She noted the shortage of physicians in the metro Montgomery area.
According to Chadee, Jackson Hospital & Clinic is located within both a Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA) and a Medically Underserved Area (MUA). “In Montgomery County, the percentage of the population living in an area affected by a HPSA is 36.6 percent.” According to the National Center for Health Workforce Analysis, Alabama is projected to have a deficit in both primary care physicians and physician assistants in 2025, and “America’s Health Rankings” 2019 report ranked Alabama 42nd for the primary care physicians-to-population measure.
Things are a little rosier on the nursing front but still not ideal for all areas. “The state of Alabama as a whole is projected to have an adequate nursing workforce when it comes to Registered Nurses for 2030,” Chadee said. “Although there is an adequate number of RNs, they are disbursed disproportionately throughout the state.”
Faced with this, Jackson continues to place a greater emphasis on physician recruitment and retention, and Chadee is dedicated to identifying the factors that are contributing to the current challenges. “We have developed a comprehensive approach to physician recruitment and retention at our institution,” she said. “We work with more than 75 search firms to attract and recruit world-class physicians to our system.” And she’s not letting COVID-19 get in the way, scheduling virtual interviews that include several members of the physician and support staff, as well as virtual calls where the candidate can tour Jackson’s facility and meet members of the healthcare team. The next step is putting the community in the spotlight. “Introductions are made for the candidate with local realtors who provide information about the schools, neighborhoods, cultural activities and restaurants. Additionally, candidates are sent links to online videos with community information,” she said. “For candidates, finding an environment in which they feel comfortable and close to other physicians as well as community members is essential.”
Chadee stressed that headway has been made in recent years. “The landscape of recruitment for young professionals, to include physicians, has improved with a collaborative effort by the City, the County, the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce and local industry, including banks, educational institutions and real estate professionals,” she said.
It’s promising progress, as Russ Tyner, CEO of Baptist Health, underscored how vital recruitment and retention efforts are. “While COVID-19 issues dominate today’s issues list, there is a post-COVID reality that still requires that we continue to create and recruit the next generation of quality clinicians and leaders for the local and regional healthcare market,” he said. “This is paramount for continued success.”