Hospital

Santa Cruz Valley Regional Hospital uses remote access to link patients with its pulmonologist.

Six years ago this month, the newly finished Green Valley Hospital opened for one day of public tours. Administrators expected 500 people; nearly 4,000 showed up, ringing the building to see the community’s first — and long-anticipated— hospital.

Three days later, May 19, 2015, the doors opened for business, and within 24 hours, the hospital admitted its first patient — a 27-year-old woman from Sahuarita.

Since then, the 49-bed hospital has gone through bankruptcy, an ownership change and a pandemic that came close to shutting it down. It also changed its name to Santa Cruz Valley Regional Hospital.

The bankruptcy in April 2017 left a reputation the hospital has found difficult to shake — that it’s continuously scraping for dollars. While the filing wasn’t the last of its financial woes, the hospital has recently poured big money into additional doctors, services, specialities and capital that it hopes will bolster its image going forward.

We sat down with CEO Stephen Harris to get an update on where they are.

Just over a year into COVID-19, what’s happening today at the hospital?

Harris, who took over as CEO late last year, said the front doors reopened about two weeks ago and the six-bed ICU facility is back open after shutting down in late January. Visitation has been relaxed — you can accompany a patient into the hospital or ER and one visitor can be in the hospital room (doesn’t have to be family).

Why was the ICU closed down for a time?

Simply put, with bidding wars for nurses during the pandemic, it just got too expensive and personnel was hard to find.

“When things got really crazy for ICU staff, we were paying $400,000 a year for an ICU nurse, and it was costing us $80,000 a year before the pandemic,” Harris said.

The goal during the closure was to get away from high-dollar traveling nurses and recruit locally. With the reopening of the ICU, that has been accomplished.

“We have 100 percent local-employed nurses, no travelers,” Harris said. “We’ve got a really great ICU staff.”

You also were having trouble recruiting a pulmonologist, which is a national problem, correct?

Pulmonologists are in short supply everywhere. Blame it in part on the rise of COPD cases along with an aging population. Many hospitals have gone to telemedicine (remote) for pulmonology, and SCVRH has joined them, Harris said.

SCVRH now has a remote pulmonologist out of Chicago (licensed in Arizona) who can see patients using a laptop and screen, read lab results, scans, EKGs, MRIs and coordinate care with the hospitalist on site. Everything but touch the patient.

How’s it going over with patients?

It’s early, but so far, so good, he said.

“It’s pretty invisible to the patients,” Harris said. “They’re seeing a hospitalist, and the pulmonologist is consulting with the hospitalist.”

He calls this an interim step while they look for an on-site pulmonologists.

What about cardiology?

“We have a cardiac cath lab and can do everything but open-heart surgeries here, with pacemakers and stents and drug-eluting stents,” Harris said. “We now have cardiac coverage 24/7 — remote in the evenings and weekends.”

Dr. Mukesh Gopalakrishnan, with the on-site Pima Heart & Vascular, says 98 percent of cardiac patients can get what they need at SCVRH, Harris said.

“It would be an unusual circumstance that a patient would have to be transferred,” he said, adding a cardiac rehab program should be open by June. Also, calcium scoring, which is a great predictor of cardiac problems — a non-invasive CT scan that lets physicians know if you’re likely too have downstream cardiac problems.

Other changes?

There is an emphasis on women’s health with a 3-D mammography machine.

“We’re now able to do pretty comprehensive breast biopsies,” Harris said.

They also have three primary care doctors, a urologist (Dr. William Cho) who started in January and is taking same-day appointments.

The hospital was certified in April as an Orthopaedic Center of Excellence, and expects to be accredited in June as a Chest Pain Center.

They have a $2 million Mako robotic hip and knee replacement machine “that can shave one millimeter off the hip bone to give the patient that much more flexibility,” Harris said.

Any advantages to Santa Cruz Valley Regional Hospital we’re just not thinking about?

A community project to raise funds for a golf cart was a success. Now, a golf cart can bring people from the parking lots to the buildings. It’s a hit.

Also, “Door to Doc in 15 minutes” has a 99 percent success rate in the Emergency Room.

“It’s not how far you are from the Emergency Room, it’s how long you have to wait to get in to see the provider,” Harris said. “If you have health concerns, come and see us. We’ll see you in 15 minutes, we’ll do a thoughtful assessment with a board-certified physician, and if you need to be stabilized, we’ll stabilize you. If you need higher-level care, coming from our ER to that ER is going to get you there so much faster than driving your car to Tucson Medical Center for an hour, sitting two hours in their waiting room then getting in to see a doctor.”

Future initiatives?

The hospital plans two rural clinics. The first opens in Nogales this summer with one full-time primary doctor and one nurse practitioner. All specialists will rotate through. The next is in Tubac in the fall, in about 3,000 square feet of a former bank building. Same doctor set-up. They’ll both be open Monday through Friday and they’re looking at extended hours. Both locations qualify as federal HPSA (Health Professional Shortage Area) — medically underserved. A third clinic could be placed in Arivaca, but there’s no decision yet.

They’re also considering adding a 10-bed geropsychiatric unit principally for dementia patients. It would open in early 2022.

The Maricopa County Industrial Development Authority has also approved the hospital’s bond issue. They can now sell short-term bonds, marketed to institutional buyers.

“This process allows us to fund our future capital initiatives and really stabilizes the hospital financially,” Harris said.

They are also looking at bringing back swing beds in June — a place where patients can recover in a skilled nursing environment.

Has the new Northwest Hospital in Sahuarita made a dent in Green Valley?

It’s pretty much a non-issue, Harris said. They are unsure of the numbers headed to the 18-bed hospital, which opened in November, but believe it gets a fraction of the ambulance transports from this area.

But aren’t ambulance transports also a problem for Santa Cruz Valley Regional Hospital?

Harris said the biggest challenge is that 70 percent of patients from this area still go to Tucson hospitals. He will meet this month with the two local ambulance providers in the area to figure out why. It could be because they’re unaware of what the hospital offers and its recently expanded services and addition of medical specialists. Mostly, he says they need patients to head here instead of north.

“We need your support,” Harris said. “We’ve got the resources to do a great job taking care of you, we’re convenient, if you have mobility problems we have the golf cart, we have staff, we’ve got volunteers who live in the community to greet you, you can visit your loved one, you can go to the ER with your loved one, we’ve got board-certified doctors who’ll see you in 15 minutes. There is no reason to take an ambulance into Tucson.”

Other big concerns?

People are putting off addressing health care needs —including life-saving or extending measures — out of fear of the virus. In some cases, they’re literally killing themselves slowly by not seeking services. Schedule appointments and keep them.

How is the hospital doing financially?

Harris said they were profitable the first quarter but that included some COVID-19 money from the government. He said they are at 75 percent of where they were pre-COVID.

“We are hoping that as the community has more confidence in coming back to their healthcare providers, that additional volume will offset the end of the Paycheck Protection money in the COVID fund,” he said. In short, if the public supports them, they’re fine.

“This is a great hospital with caring, wonderful people and great administrative staff,” he said. “This is my 48th year in hospital administration and I am so proud of the people here and the potential that we’ve got and the commitment to the patients. It’s absolutely inspiring.”

What if I have more questions?

Call the CEO directly. Harris’ cell number (texts are best but calling is fine): 520-471-1122. The hospital website is scvrhaz.com, and includes several videos about offerings. The hospital main line is: 520-393-4700.