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1,100 Comments Help to Mold Hospital's Plan

by Peter Heck, Kent County News, June 17, 2010

CHESTERTOWN � Chester River Health System has a new strategic plan for delivering care to its community. The strategic plan looks at the hospital''s strengths, the local region''s needs, and the ways the two can be brought together.

�It''s a community-driven plan,� said Jim Ross, the CEO and president of CRHS. Formed over the last eight months, the plan was shaped by some 1,100 responses from community members, collected by questionnaire, by phone, in town meetings, and in one on one interviews with patients, doctors and hospital staff. The system includes Chester River Hospital Center, the Chester River Manor longterm care and Rehabilitation center, and the Chester River Home Care and Hospice agency.

Ross, on June 11, noted that �a significant percentage� of the people in the system''s service area � which consists primarily of Kent and Queen Anne''s counties � took part in creating the plan. The community surveys began before Ross came on board, and he �tweaked� them a little upon his arrival, asking outside consultants to talk to the employees.

Joining Ross in a press conference were Karen O''Connor, chair of the planning committee, Wayne Gardner, chairman of the system''s board, and Julie Vallecillo, director of marketing and public relations. O''Connor characterized the comments as �very thoughtful.�

Gardner said, �The University of Maryland Medical System is absolutely committed� to the local hospital. He pointed out that the CEO of the UMMS system, the chief financial officer, and the chief medical officer all sit on the CRHS board.

Surveys indicate that 61.1 percent of patients come to CRHS from Kent County, and another 30.7 percent from Queen Anne''s. Cecil County accounts for less than 1 percent, and the balance of patients, 7.4 percent, come from outside the immediate area. Queen Anne''s is the system''s largest growth area.

Ross is a very hands-on CEO, visiting the hospital at all hours, and encouraging his doctors to make their homes in the community they serve. �It''s an important bond,� he said. He and his wife recently bought a home within walking distance of the hospital, making it easier for him to come in on short notice.

Ross, O''Connor and Gardner agreed that the merger with UMMS has made the local hospital stronger. One result of the merger has been the access to a wide base of knowledge and experience for local doctors, who can now call on experts elsewhere in the system for advice. �People need to have health care where they live,� said Gardner. �We can''t be all things to all people, but the system gives us access to services we can''t provide by ourselves.�

One key imperative identified by the strategic plan is retaining the system''s primary care and specialty doctors, and recruiting new ones to the system. O''Connor said that the plan needs to take into account the number of doctors nearing retirement age, and to prepare a succession plan for their replacement.

The system''s recruitment picture is complicated by the fact that Maryland is among the most difficult states to recruit new doctors to. That''s largely because the pay rate here ranks 47th out of the 50 states, according to Ross. He added that a smaller town has an image problem in recruiting; newcomers expect it to be dull and provincial, which he said he has quickly learned is not true of Chestertown.

Ross also noted that the hospital has assets out of proportion to its size. He mentioned the 64-slice CT scanner and the cardiac rehabilitation center. O''Connor added the digital mammography scanner to the list of equipment that would not be found in many institutions the size of CRHS.

Still, Vallecillo noted, a smaller hospital faces added challenges in staffing. �We don''t offer all the specialties we might need,� she said. An advantage of the merger with UMMS is that it allows CRHS to bring in specialists on a part-time basis, sharing their time with other institutions in the system.

Ross identified specialties the hospital is hoping to add. �We need full-time hires in certain disciplines,� he said. Others will be fractional hires, shared with other branches of the UMMS system. Oncology and neurology are in the mix, along with hospitalists and primary care doctors. Endocrinology and nephrology are specialties CRHS can share with Shore Health. �We''re working on others,� he said. The new specialty clinic, which is expected to bring in a practitioners on a once-a-week basis, can make available specialties the hospital doesn''t have enough demand for to offer full-time.

Gardner singled out nursing care as one of the hospital''s greatest assets. He said that even survey respondents who criticized the hospital frequently added, �But the nursing care was great.�

Other strategic imperatives include increasing public awareness of the health system''s programs and services; making CRHS the preferred destination for the specific services it offers; and maintaining the profitability of the institution.

CRHS is also working to strengthen cooperation with the Kent County Health Department, which Vallecillo described as �a great partner.� Mutual support between the two institutions can help both maintain quality services in the current economic climate, where state budget cuts are a fact of life.

�Most people don''t think about health care until they need it,� Ross said. He is committed to making sure that when they do need it, they will come to the Chester River Health System institutions.

Vallecillo said on Wednesday that highlights of the strategic plan will be posted on the CRHS website, www.chesterriverhealth.org, by this weekend. Also, plans are being made for an open house at the hospital this fall, where elements of the plan would be part of the discussion.

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