By now, many people have heard that I have accepted an offer to help open a new hospital and expand an obstetrics and gynecology program in Denver, so our family will be leaving Del Norte County by the end of this year. This was a difficult decision, not easy to make, especially since we have been deeply involved in this community and have made many friends over the past 14 years who will be difficult to leave behind.
As such, I feel like it is time that I share publicly my feelings about the recent conflict and rancor over the future of Sutter Health in the management and operation of Sutter Coast Hospital. I have served on the board of the hospital myself, as well as the Medical Executive Committee of the medical staff (including 2 years as chief of staff) for most of the time I have lived here, and I have never witnessed a time of more turmoil for the healthcare providers of this community.
Let this column serve simply as my thoughts about the challenges facing this healthcare community — on the way out the door, yes, but with an honest and deep concern for the people who have been so good to me and my family for the past many years.
In my opinion, most of the information about the issues which have circulated about Sutter’s plans has been distorted and inflammatory, serving only to pit well-meaning people against each other and adversely affecting the level of health care available to everyone. Witness the recent attention given to Sutter Coast’s performance on their recent review by the Joint Commission, which accredits our hospital. This was by far the best review that Sutter Coast has ever received. In fact, the reviewers left here with rare compliments on their lips, indicating that they would be glad to work here and, indeed, receive care here themselves. Yet those in the community who are rallied together against Sutter chose only to focus on the few minor negative findings by the commission, ignoring the overall level of excellence achieved by the nurses, staff and administrators who run the hospital.
In my experience, Sutter Heath is one of the finest healthcare organizations in the country, and this is experience born of many years of personal interactions with Sutter employees up and down the ranks both locally and at the system level, from high-level administrators to rank-and-file staff members. These are some of the best-intentioned people I’ve ever met, with an honest commitment to providing quality and compassionate healthcare. That’s not to say that they don’t make a mistake every now and then — they are human beings just like the rest of us. But I have seen the hurt that certain accusations from so-called local experts has caused among the staff at the hospital, and it is demoralizing and unfair.
Much attention has been paid to the amount of money that Sutter Coast Hospital “sends to Sacramento” every year, but I am here to tell you that Del Norte County gets every dollar of that back in spades in the discounts associated with group purchasing, the access to top-notch information technology, provision of excellent health-care benefits for employees, extensive legal support, access to funding for expensive capital improvements (a $6 million air-handler system just last year!) and a fully-funded pension plan, to name just a few.
In addition, Sutter has been the driving force for recruiting new physicians to this community since even before they brought me here myself. In today’s healthcare environment, most doctors are only interested in employed positions — hardly anyone is willing to shoulder the risk of running a private practice. Sutter has worked actively to create business structures, which attract today’s new physicians, at much financial risk to Sutter’s bottom line. No other entity in Del Norte County has shown the will, let alone the resources, to continue this work.
One of my biggest frustrations has been to witness the scare tactics that have been wielded over the potential change in designation of the hospital from acute care to critical access. In my own study of the critical access designation, I honestly do not see the negative impact that has been portrayed by others. We would still have the same doctors, do the same surgeries, have the same ER, the same lab, the same radiology department. We would still admit for the same diagnoses, and I simply don’t agree with the math that the opponents to critical access proclaim when it comes to the numbers of people who would have to be transferred out due to lack of capacity. We already transfer a significant number of patients out of Sutter Coast every year, mostly for services that we just don’t provide here and never will. Ironically, a fair number of those transfers are for services that could be provided here but are not because the doctors who perform those services choose not to take emergency room calls. Oddly enough, they are some of the most vocal opponents to critical access. Converting to critical access is not “downsizing.” In my opinion it is strengthening and stabilizing.
It has also been annoying, to say the least, to have a few members of the medical staff imply that they are speaking with one voice for all of us. There is a wide variety of opinions about the future direction of the hospital, and there is an ongoing spirited discussion about it at medical staff meetings and in emails burning up the internet. There are many other doctors and nurses and health care professionals who share my feeling that it is in the best interest of Del Norte County to remain allied with the financially-strong and quality-driven entity that is Sutter Health, even if that means relatively minor changes to business structure or medical staff governance.
I was driven to write this column because a number of my patients have conveyed to me that they thought my decision to leave was driven by a dissatisfaction with Sutter Health. I want to clear that misconception up. I am leaving primarily because I was offered a great job which represents an exciting professional opportunity which would never be available to me here. But I will say this: I only looked for that job because certain individuals in the community have created an antagonistic and destructive atmosphere around the future role of Sutter Health at our hospital. I felt that if Sutter was forced out, I would be in a deeply compromised position and therefore should have an exit strategy. Unfortunately, for most of the citizens of Del Norte County, when it comes to health care, there is no exit strategy. If you lose Sutter, you lose one of the best things you have going, and that will be a shame.
John Tynes M.D. is the medical director of Sutter Coast Community Clinic, a past hospital chief of staff and past member of the hospital Board of Directors.