Find New Uses For Old Hospitals

In some cases, health systems are taking existing hospitals and turning them into specialized facilities.

After buying the River Parishes Hospital in LaPlace, La., three years ago, Ochsner joined with a provider of psychiatric and addiction treatment to convert the hospital to an inpatient psychiatric facility to provide services for mental-health disorders. Emergency care once provided at River Parishes is now offered at a new medical complex including 24/7 emergency services with 13 beds and on-site lab and radiology.

In New York, after Mount Sinai Health System’s 2013 acquisition of Continuum, a network of community hospitals, it no longer made sense to operate all of them as full-service hospitals, says Kenneth L. Davis, Mount Sinai’s president and chief executive.

The focus now has been on converting the facilities to centers for specialty care, while continuing to ensure that each hospital can handle emergencies and other community needs, Dr. Davis says. The former Roosevelt Hospital, on Manhattan’s West Side, for example, has been rebranded as Mount Sinai West, specializing in orthopedics, neurosurgery and complex ear, nose and throat cases, as well as mother-and-child services.

St. Luke’s Hospital in West Harlem is specializing in cardiac interventions, circulation restoration, weight-loss surgery and orthopedic trauma cases. Mount Sinai is replacing the antiquated Beth Israel hospital with a new downtown network of primary, specialty, urgent, behavioral and outpatient-surgery services, as well as a new hospital designed for short stays and procedures with an emergency department. And New York Eye and Ear Infirmary’s current site will be transformed into a full-scale ER with stroke and heart care, along with beds for short stays.

The goal is to care for each patient in the most appropriate setting, whether in a traditional hospital bed, an outpatient center or at home, Dr. Davis says. While Mount Sinai has faced questions from some groups concerned about a reduction in the number of hospital beds, especially should there be a citywide emergency, “we can’t build facilities for doomsday,” Dr. Davis says. “We need a new model of care that focuses on wellness and prevention and keeps people out of hospitals.”

Reach out to those at risk

The population-health strategy at Geisinger Health System includes identifying groups who can benefit from programs to improve health and avoid hospitalization, such as diabetics whose blood sugar isn’t well controlled. Dr. Feinberg says preventive care could have prevented foot amputations in many such patients in Geisinger hospitals.


In Shamokin, Pa., for example, about 50% of the population is predisposed to diabetes, mostly due to obesity, and one in three residents is considered “food insecure.” A healthier diet can lead to improvement in the disease. In a pilot program, Geisinger established a Fresh Food Farmacy, prescribing fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains, and providing them free to patients and families who need assistance, along with diabetes education, cooking tools and recipes.

Dr. Feinberg says Geisinger has seen a decrease in blood-sugar levels for participating patients, “and we are scaling the program up as fast as we can.”

Research is helping identify the health risks of other patients. A study of Geisinger electronic health records, published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2016, suggested that patients who lived near heavy gas-drilling activity from fracking in Pennsylvania face a larger risk of asthma attacks. And a 2013 study of Geisinger patient records found that proximity to high-density livestock production was associated with MRSA, a form of staph. Doctors can wait until children “We can wait until kids show up with asthma or come in with a staph infection, or go into the community and intervene with those people who have risk factors,” Dr. Feinberg says.

Geisinger is also conducting a study, the MyCode Community Health Initiative, sequencing the genome of volunteers to look for risks such as cancer and heart disease. So far more than 170,000 patients have signed on; in many cases, Dr. Feinberg says, “people have a medically actionable condition, and there is something we can do.”

Help from afar

More hospital systems are reducing the need for large hospitals staffed by high-level specialists by investing in telemedicine. This technology lets doctors in one or more central hubs monitor and care for patients in widely dispersed intensive-care units, such as stroke victims and premature newborns.

For instance, specialists using two-way video and audio technology can monitor and recommend care for newborns in multiple neonatal units from one hub, while a patient with a rash or wound needing special care can use Skype or FaceTime to consult with a specialist from their local doctor’s office, home computer or mobile phone. Telemedicine also allows local practitioners to consult remotely face to face with experts in big medical centers.

With 179 hospitals, HCA Healthcare Inc. still sees demand for more hospital capacity in its markets, adding 1,350 inpatient beds over the past three years, with plans for 2,000 more in the next three years. But last year, HCA also provided 115,000 telehealth consults, including for hospitals it doesn’t own. “Telehealth is the glue that allows us to transcend time and geography,” says Jonathan Perlin, president, clinical services, and chief medical officer of HCA. Dr. Perlin says HCA guarantees it can remotely evaluate stroke patients within 15 minutes of a request to help local doctors determine whether to administer clot-busting drugs or transfer a patient to a higher level of care.

Intermountain Health Care, based in Salt Lake City, with 22 hospitals in Utah and one in Idaho, uses telemedicine for patients in its more far-flung locations. In Utah, smaller rural hospitals can connect emergency-department patients with crisis-care workers in Salt Lake City. Intermountain Medical Center also offers remote outpatient psychiatry consults, as well as guiding local treatment of wounds.

Eighteen rural hospitals, for example including two it doesn’t own, have access to remote neonatologists, and more than 1,000 patients have been treated through its telestroke program, administered by experts at its main Intermountain Medical Center to patients in emergency rooms across its system.

“We aren’t interested in building more bricks and mortar, but are leveraging technology to expand our reach and our footprint,” says Jim Sheets, Intermountain Healthcare vice president of outreach services. “Patients and families shouldn’t be penalized because they were born in Blanding, Utah, and don’t have access to the level of acute care we have in Salt Lake City.”

Make hospitals more efficient

As less-complex care moves outside of their walls, traditional hospitals are turning to big data and the science of predictive analytics to improve care of the sickest patients. That allows them to better recognize who is deteriorating quickly in intensive care, identify which patients are likely to end up back in the hospital once they’ve been discharged, and make sure operating rooms are available when needed for surgeries.

UCHealth in Colorado typically assigned blocks of operating-room time to surgeons, but the full allocations weren’t always used, and there was no reliable way to open them up for other surgeons and procedures, according to Steve Hess, UCHealth’s chief information officer.

In partnership with Silicon Valley company LeanTaas, UCHealth has adopted a program called iQueue, which analyzes data about how surgeons are using their operating-room time, identifies the causes of delays such as starting the first case late, and pinpoints other problems causing bottlenecks. It uses machine learning to detect patterns of over- or underuse and re-allocates operating-room time as needed.

“We can easily see if a surgeon is consistently using only two-thirds of an eight-hour block, and whether we can easily reduce that to six hours without any pain,” says Mr. Hess. Surgeons get early warnings when their use of operating-room time approaches lower bounds set by the hospital. And surgeons can use their mobile phones to release assigned blocks, request blocks and swap time with other colleagues.

“Many hospitals would say we need to build more ORs instead of trying to optimize the 10 we have,” says Mr. Hess. “But we know the increase in health-care costs is unsustainable, and we have to do things more efficiently.”

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