by Michael Rindler Guest Columnist
I moved to Apalachicola six years ago, after several years of renting houses in town. This is a wonderful community with wonderful people. We are happy and feel privileged to live here. During our time in Apalachicola, I have observed with great interest the challenges of Weems Memorial Hospital. I know something about these challenges.
Early in my career I became president of a troubled community hospital and led its turnaround. Thirty-five years ago I founded a hospital management and consulting firm specializing in assisting troubled community hospitals. During the 35 years I was active in my firm, I consulted with over 100 hospitals and served temporarily as the president of 12 challenged hospitals, guiding them out of trouble. The smallest of these hospitals was the size of Weems; the largest had over 6,000 employees and annual revenues of over $900 million.
Based on my experiences in healthcare leadership, it is unwise to be contemplating investing millions of dollars for an addition to Weems. Ten or 15 years ago, this might have been a reasonable strategy. However, during those years, the hospital’s leadership became a revolving door. Multiple consultants came, took money, and left the hospital worse off than they found it. Many local citizens abandoned Weems and sought healthcare services elsewhere.
A perhaps well-meaning, but otherwise clueless about healthcare, the Franklin County commission is responsible for this unfortunate tragedy. Recently, a current county commissioner said it best: “Politics has no place in medicine.” I could not agree more. The hopelessly political county commission should get out of overseeing healthcare in Franklin County, the sooner the better.
So what could be done now? Instead of trying to rebuild the tired, six-decade-old hospital facility, which can never be financially viable, the community could get behind the idea of building a first-class, 24-hour emergency room facility, along with offices for three or four primary care physicians who live in the community, worship in the community, and become one with the community. That is what Dr. Weems did.
For those naysayers who protest that is no longer realistic, I respond that some excellent primary care physicians grew up in this area and came back to live and practice, my primary care physician included. A shiny new hospital addition will not improve healthcare for Apalachicola. A superb emergency facility and a group of dedicated primary care physicians living locally will improve the healthcare of the community.
In my opinion it is not too late to build a new emergency and primary care facility, with dedicated laboratory, radiology, and rehabilitation services attached. It could be built in a more central county location. This kind of facility could very well stop the steady flow of people who have abandoned Weems in past years to seek healthcare services outside the county. The existing hospital building could be repurposed into an assisted living facility so people would not have to leave town for those late-in-life support services.
It has been said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. That is what Weems, under the guidance of the county commission, has been doing for decades. Sadly, doing the same thing over and over (new presidents, new consultants, etc.) has not achieved a good outcome for the hospital or the community. The county commission is accountable for this sad result.
I am not suggesting Franklin County should give up on local healthcare. I am suggesting that revitalizing healthcare for the community will be better served by a new emergency and primary care facility. I am further suggesting the county commission get out of the hospital business, which they clearly are not overseeing successfully.
The county commission should appoint a true healthcare governance board with full powers to oversee healthcare facilities in the county without political interference. This and only this will take the politics out of local healthcare delivery. Many of the challenged and troubled hospitals I assisted or led as president over the years got that way because they were overseen by city or county commissions more concerned with politics than improving healthcare in their community. A key solution which led to eventual recovery of these hospitals was simple: appointment of a true governing board for the hospital with the authority to make healthcare decisions based on community good rather than local politics.
None of this critique is intended to disparage the current hospital, leadership, or staff of Weems. They are doing the best they can within the constraints they work under with the county commission.
I believe Dr. Weems would be sad to see the state of the cherished hospital named for him in 1959. Instead of dwelling on this, we as a community should insist on changes that would make Dr. Weems proud if he were with us today. We need to have a governing board and healthcare leadership team in the county that young physicians would want to join, to live and practice here and to become one with the community, like Dr. Weems did so many years ago.
Perhaps recruiting several new “Dr. Weems” is only a dream, but it is a dream worthy of consideration. It is far too late to build an expensive addition to the hospital and expect it to succeed. That is insanity. It is not too late to build a superb, centrally located emergency room staffed with local physicians and excellent primary care support services overseen by a governing board totally focused on improving the health of our community. That is a new dream worth thinking about.
Michael E. Rindler is a resident of Apalachicola.