In North Central Massachusetts, we are fortunate to have three excellent health care organizations providing quality care and services to the more than 275,000 residents who call our region home. Even with their great reputation, our region’s hospitals are experiencing challenges with staffing shortages and retention, responding to the unique needs of an aging population and providing increased mental health services, all of which are compounded with a global pandemic. But, despite these challenges, our hospitals are rising above, providing unique opportunities for recruitment and retention while investing in their facilities and giving back to their communities.
In September, the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce released the results of our Regional Economic Development Plan, which placed health care as one of the top industries with a strong market to retain and expand toward the future.
“We certainly have market strength in the region,” said Steve Roach, President, HealthAlliance-Clinton Hospital. “Health care is one of the most interesting business models because people will always need health care, but we are also at the mercy of an extremely tight labor market.”
Roach leads HealthAlliance-Clinton Hospital, a full service, acute care 163-bed community hospital serving North Central Massachusetts and Southern New Hampshire. He said the hospital is navigating the recent COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which is putting an already tight labor market to its breaking point. “We are looking at our staffing levels to ensure our nurses are performing at the top of their game and also researching alternative staffing models to provide the continuity of care the community expects and deserves from our hospital,” he added.
Even with the renovated Emergency Department opening in 2019, which resulted in a total of 42 beds up from 24 beds, Roach said the hospital is continually over capacity due to mental health cases in the emergency room waiting for a bed at another facility. “We will always be here to provide care to all of our patients, and we are working daily to resolve these challenges,” he said. “We want our patients to receive treatment and care as quickly as we can.”
Heywood Hospital is also experiencing staffing challenges; however, Winfield S. Brown, President and CEO, said the hospital has a variety of strategies in place to retain its dedicated staff and improve the overall health of the community despite the challenges from the pandemic.
A non-profit, community-owned 134-bed hospital located in Gardner, Heywood Hospital welcomed 60 new staff members in various roles in September and is also offering sign-on bonuses for certain positions. “We see health care as a growth market for the region and we are growing as a health care system while also identifying ways to improve economy and equality among our workforce,” said Brown.
In addition to being unique in size and geography, Brown said the hospital has relationships with local colleges and universities to provide development opportunities to current employees while also filling the talent pipeline for years to come. In fact, Mount Wachusett Community College (MWCC) partners with Heywood Hospital to provide 40 to 50 students a training ground for practicum in pharmacy and radiology technology. And, through a workforce development grant with MWCC, Heywood Hospital can have up to 20 employees who are interested in pursuing a clinical track for nursing obtain education at the college with clinical experience at the hospital.
For current employees, the hospital has a variety of strategies in place to retain staff, such as providing a robust award and recognition program and daily “huddles” for staff to check-in with each other. “We have the hardest working staff around and we need to make sure they feel appreciated, understood and heard,” said Brown. “We established a President’s Advisory Council to learn the staff’s pulse on the institution and we listen and then act to make sure our employees know we heard their feedback.”
Heywood Hospital also boasts a robust behavioral health services program, with 20 geriatric psychiatric beds and a partial outpatient program that provides up to 40 participants with mental health support. In November, the hospital received approval from the Public Health Council to begin construction of a new surgical pavilion, which will replace the existing operating room suite built in the 1960s. The pavilion will include six operating rooms, support state-of-the-art technology and provide an exceptional patient experience. “Our patients deserve first-class health care in a first-class facility,” added Brown.
Nashoba Valley Medical Center, a community hospital serving 16 communities in North Central Massachusetts, experienced tremendous growth this year as more people chose to obtain health care locally during the pandemic instead of going into the city.
Sal Perla, DrPH, President and CEO of Nashoba Valley Medical Center, said as the hospital experiences an increase in patient capacity, it is responding by growing its physician roster. “This year, we’ve expanded the Steward Medical Group in all of our locations,” said Perla. “We’ve recruited ten medical doctors this year, including a board-certified orthopedic surgeon, several new primary care physicians and several other sub-specialists.”
While the use of emergency room services increased by 11 percent in 2021, Perla said the hospital has the lowest wait times in the region, which he attributes to a website where those seeking care can check on current wait times in the emergency department. “We are so proud of our staff,” added Perla. “And our five-star patient satisfaction results on Google prove that we are creating sustainable care models that reinforce our dedication to quality of care.” In fact, Perla said approximately 25 percent of their patients hail from the Leominster and Fitchburg area. Perla is also thrilled to announce that Nashoba Valley Medical Center earned an “A” Leapfrog Hospital Safety Grade for fall 2021. This national distinction recognizes the hospital’s achievements in protecting patients from harm and error in the hospital.
With a niche in physical therapy, the medical center welcomes approximately 100 patients a day to its aquatics center in Groton for total joint replacement therapy. Recently, Nashoba Valley Medical Center was recognized with a 5-star rating for treatment of hip fracture and pneumonia outcomes by Healthgrades, the leading resource that connects consumers, physicians and health systems. Additionally, the medical center reports that its GI center is performing colonoscopies and endoscopies within 1-2 weeks of initial requests which helps in the aid of detection of early stages of cancer.
Although the Regional Economic Development Plan reported that health care offers a variety of wages, with more than half of the 17,000 region health care workers paid less than $55,000 annually, Perla said the medical center instituted a minimum wage of $15 per hour in 2019.
As the aging population continues to increase in the region, all of the hospitals stand ready to provide care and services to keep individuals at home as long as possible. Nashoba is proud to offer a 20-bed geriatric-psychiatric inpatient behavioral/medical unit which addresses higher level of care for individuals with Dementia/Alzheimer’s associated disease.
Roach said HealthAlliance-Clinton Hospital is well-equipped to respond to the needs of the aging population as the hospital operates HealthAlliance Home Health & Hospice (HAHHH), which aims to keep patients in their own homes. “We can offer a level of care, comfort and compassion and are available to assist 24/7 with physical and emotional support,” added Roach. “We want our community to age in home versus aging in nursing homes.”
Perla agrees. “We are learning about the future every day,” he said. “We want to make sure people can retire and live out their years where they want to be and need to be.”
In spite of the challenges and opportunities our hospitals must face now and in the coming years, all of the hospitals remain committed as engaged members of their respective communities.
At Heywood Hospital, Brown said they are dedicated to improving the health of the community, with special consideration of disadvantaged populations, by working collaboratively with community partners to increase prevention efforts, address social determinants of health, and improve access to care. Their Backpack Food Program supports more than 400 youth and their families with nutritious, non-perishable, easy-to-prepare food choices over the weekend. “The Backpack programs provide more than just food,” said Brown. “They also bring a sense of security economic empowerment, healthy food access and social inclusion for children.”
HealthAlliance-Clinton Hospital recently invested more than $700,000 to fund community-based initiatives to support the urgent health challenges presented by food insecurity, substance abuse and workforce development. In 2019, the hospital also provided an investment of $750,000 in the Fitchburg Arts Community, a 62-unit mixed housing project on the site of the former BF Brown School in downtown Fitchburg to aid in the pre-development phase of the project.
And, as a public health doctor, Perla is giving back to the community through volunteering and expertise as an epidemiologist to local businesses and organizations to ensure a safe environment for social gatherinDgs during the pandemic. “As a public health doctor, my job is to improve public health above all else,” said Perla. “By providing risk assessments via surveys to help businesses thrive lowers the risk and establishes a comfort level and safe environment based on the survey feedback from the participants.”
The pulse of any community rests on the trust it places in its residents and institutions. Through calm times and crisis, North Central Massachusetts’ array of healthcare systems, administrators and physicians stand ready to keep that pulse alive and help it thrive. Their dedication and investment go far beyond business and hits at the heart of what makes this region a great place to live and work: people caring for people working together, not just to survive but to thrive.