Patient growth. Staff growth. System growth. Campus growth. Services growth. Cost growth. Northeast Arkansas’ healthcare landscape is growing in every direction, and Jonesboro proper is the epicenter of the central nervous system.
Between the two major hospital systems in the region — NEA Baptist and St. Bernards — there are roughly 660 hospital beds. Drive 60 miles in any direction outside of Jonesboro and there are another 375 hospital beds. There are over 3,100 nursing home beds for the aging and infirm in the region.
But healthcare stretches much farther than beds. The range and scope of offerings in Northeast Arkansas has developed exponentially in the past 15 years to include cutting-edge cancer treatment, maternity wards, emergency rooms, specialty clinics, pediatric care, heart centers, rehab services and more.
Little Rock-based pediatric hospital Arkansas Children’s announced in early August it would expand its children’s clinic in Jonesboro thanks to Chris and Kim Fowler, who donated $750,000 for an expansion. St. Bernards, founded in 1900 by the Benedictine Sisters, is in the midst of a $140 million expansion on its downtown Jonesboro campus. NEA Baptist is filling out its $400 million state-of-the-art medical center on Arkansas Highway 49 with the capacity to more than double in size.
What will be the biggest factor shaping the future direction of healthcare? Physician recruitment? Baby Boomer retirements? Health insurance affordability? Medical advances? Facilities? Technology?
All of the above and none of the above, say the chief executives of the region’s two largest hospital groups. St. Bernards CEO Chris Barber and NEA Baptist CEO Brad Parsons agree that “quality of life” may be the biggest influencer for the direction of healthcare in Northeast Arkansas. They sat down with Talk Business & Politics CEO Roby Brock for a conversation.
Brock: From recruiting talent to encouraging healthier lifestyles, how has growth and growth in amenities helped you in your efforts?
Parsons: We have been active in that space and want to continue to be active. Jonesboro has a big footprint. We’re committed to be connected to trails and bike paths and things. We do our part. We host several events on our campus, which we think is a great environment to allow people a safe place to exercise and to run and bike.
We want to help foster the idea that Jonesboro can be connected, and that we’re a community that’s passionate about not just having a great environment to work in, which we believe we do at NEA Baptist, but also have a great community to live in that has a lot of great resources and a lot of things that our community collaboratively are working on to make Jonesboro a better place to live.
Barber: It’s certainly becoming easier as the community has expanded more amenities here, more quality of life activities. Certainly, the university helps. The new medical school and our profession helps here within [New York Institute of Technology] on the A-State campus. We’ve started new residencies, so that certainly has been of benefit to the overall medical community here as well. What we’ve found for some of those challenging subspecialties, if we can get folks to think of Arkansas and then come to the community, the community can sell itself with a good quality of life, good school systems, low crime rate, low cost of living. So, for example, we’ve recruited close to 100 new physicians in the last six years here.
Brock: Tell me where you have your healthcare system positioned in the market today for growth in the future.
Barber: St. Bernards has seen nice, progressive growth over the years as well as our community and our region. We feel positioned well to meet those challenges and address the needs of the population as it grows, as it ages, to reach out and provide access and quality services throughout Northeast Arkansas. We cover 23 counties, which includes the boot heel of Missouri, for services. So we’re looking for expansion opportunities for access points, utilization of technology, access of providers in each one of those communities. And certainly we’ve got a significant $140 million investment in our acute care campus to handle the high-end tertiary, quaternary business.
Parsons: We believe we’re positioned really well for growth in our marketplace, and also strategically where healthcare is moving. We continue to utilize the investments we’ve made in this region, in Northeast Arkansas and across the system, across what is now a three-state footprint for Baptist Memorial Healthcare to really prepare for the future of what we believe healthcare looks like. We are focused on delivering higher-quality care and a better patient experience. We’re working hard on what we think is a moving target, but certainly technology is rapidly changing the industry, and how people connect to the healthcare system is changing, so it requires a very patient-focused effort on what patients are looking for in a healthcare system and how patients want to interact with their physician.
Brock: The Affordable Care Act and Arkansas Works have helped increase access to healthcare in Arkansas. How have you seen these two big policies impact your hospital and the community?
Parsons: I might have a unique perspective on this. No doubt about it that the Affordable Care Act and Arkansas Works have been a huge positive to hospitals and health systems in the state of Arkansas. What it allowed was, people that we were taking care of anyway, and most of which were uncontrolled issues that they were coming into the highest cost setting of care that we offer — being the emergency department — and they were being treated really without insurance because of the laws and regulations that are in place and because of our mission to take care of people that present to our organizations.
So, the laws that were put into place certainly helped us taking care of those same patients and populations. What it really did though, and where I’m passionate about, is it gave these people in our communities, it gave them options for care other than the standard option that they have typically used. So by giving them choices, it’s now really our responsibility at NEA Baptist to make sure that we are helping direct those patients to a lower cost setting of care and to making sure that just what we talked about in the value-base world, that they’re getting some of that preventative testing to ensure that they don’t have out-of-control issues that will land them back in the emergency department or with a life-threatening condition because it’s been unmanaged.
Barber: We’ve certainly seen an uptick in services in a variety of settings. So in Jonesboro, we provide more access to urgent care facilities than anywhere in Northeast Arkansas and a lot of parts of the state. We have ER trained doctors that are working urgent care after hours, seven days a week to try to get individuals in the lower cost setting to treat those needs and then utilize ER for those high intensity services. Still, you have some folks that may use it for primary care. But we’ve seen growth in certainly urgent care numbers, significant double-digit growth over the last couple of years in those types of services, and we’ve seen steady growth in our ER as well.
We certainly believe with Arkansas Works and the expansion of access to insurance coverage for folks, that has created possibilities for individuals, and we do think that’s making a positive impact too in our region as well. If you look at all the states that did not do coverage expansion — Texas, Tennessee, everyone around us — you’ve seen major hospital closures, certainly in rural communities. It’s an important program for us, and certainly we want to continue to see it be developed and refined.