SHCHD: CT Scanner Is Coming

An important diagnostic tool may soon be coming to the Southern Humboldt Community Healthcare District: a CT scanner.

At a community meeting last Thursday, Kent Scown, the district’s director of operations, estimated that in the not-too-distant future Jerold Phelps Community Hospital would be able to offer patients CT scans.

“If you’re talking how long until somebody is actually rolled into the CT, I think you’re safe to say less than six months,” Scown remarked.

A CT scan, also called a computerized axial tomography scan, or CAT scan, uses two-dimensional X-ray images taken from different angles to produce three-dimensional images of specific areas of the body.

After the meeting, which took place at the Garberville Civic Club and focused on strategic planning and prioritization, the district’s new chief executive officer Matt Rees asserted that a CT scanner would be “huge” in terms of increasing the district’s diagnostic capabilities.

“Right now, without a CT scanner, we can’t rule out certain diagnoses that would require [patients] to be [referred] to other [health care] facilities,” he explained.

When asked for examples, Rees said: “If we can rule out pulmonary embolisms or [certain disorders of the] digestive tract, then we can keep patients in our facility.”

Rees said a CT scanner would also give the district a significant financial boost.

“Getting a CT in here will increase revenue a lot,” he said flatly.

Rees should know. As CEO at Pershing General Hospital in Lovelock, Nev., a facility 90 minutes from Reno that he ran from 2003 to 2010, “We tripled our inpatient volume after upgrading our CT.”

That upgrade, along with the acquisition of other key pieces of laboratory equipment, did more than keep patients in-house. It also played a role in attracting patients from elsewhere.

“When I left, we were getting 24 percent of our revenue from [patients coming from] over 50 miles away. They were coming because of the services our staff was providing,” Rees shared.

Both Scown and Rees said that the district was negotiating to buy a piece of property immediately adjacent to the hospital — “an empty lot next to the Emergency Room,” was the way Rees described it — that would house the CT scanner.

How much that parcel might cost, or the CT scanner, is unclear.

When asked to give a ballpark estimate regarding the scanner, Rees explained that the cost depends on the strength of the machine’s imaging resolution. He said that a low-resolution “16-slice” machine of the sort the district has in mind would likely cost, brand new, somewhere between $400,000 and $800,000.

Rees said the district might be able to get a CT scanner for free. “A friend who runs another facility is replacing his, so there’s a possibility of one being donated,” he disclosed.

Rees said he didn’t know the resolution of that machine.

Board members, according to Rees, have expressed a preference for a low-resolution 16-slice machine, which exposes patients to lower radiation doses. However, he said that the district’s medical director, Dr. Marcin Matuszkiewicz, wants a 64-slice machine because it would be capable of producing images that have greater resolution.

Rees didn’t indicate which way he’s leaning, although he did say that so far the district has been “checking prices” for a low-dose machine.

“Other hospitals in the area don’t have a low-dose CT, so it could be a marketing tool,” he threw in.

As for last week’s strategic planning session, roughly 20 people were in attendance, including the district board of directors, some of the staff, and some members of the public. The meeting was facilitated by Rob Eskridge with help from Ryan Stock, both of Growth Management Center, a Santa Cruz Mountains consulting firm hired last month to provide guidance as the district embarks on an update of its strategic plan.

At a board meeting last month Eskridge and Stock helped the board identify some strategic planning items that were loosely organized into the categorizes of services needed by the community, future vision, or financial realities.

The board, staff, and interested community members at last Thursday’s planning meeting used that beginning to create a feasibility assessment, or as Eskridge called it, a needs hypothesis, that will serve as a basis to work with the community in planning the district’s future. Eskridge said this was a focused way of assessing needs.

In a method similar to the previous one used at last month’s board meeting, sticky notes with service suggestions and needs were placed by participants on a large sheet of butcher paper in categories under headings of current services and potential services.

Then priorities were identified by red dots that each person was given to choose the future potential service or issue they considered the top priority. One of the highest-priority service needs identified was for a CT scanner.

Other potential needs that were identified as priorities were more staff, coordination of care services, a social worker and benefits counselor, outstanding customer service, and primary care provider access.

The list of less prioritized potential services included, oncology, urology, podiatry, colonoscopy, pain management, more skilled nursing beds, and home health.

A member of the public, local insurance agent Clover Willison, said that the community’s confidence in the healthcare district was low. There followed discussion about how to change that perception and include the community in finding solutions that would better serve local needs. This led to a discussion about how to get as much feedback as possible from the community-wide needs assessment survey that Eskridge recommended.

Eskridge noted the widely divergent geographic areas in the healthcare district. The group talked about ways to get the community interested in participating in the process and how to get surveys distributed to everybody in the district.

Humboldt Independent staff writer Sandy Feretto contributed to this report.