Hospital CT Scanner on the Way

The Southern Humboldt Community Healthcare District should have a CT scanner up and running in three to four months, Matt Rees, the district’s chief executive officer, said last week.

Speaking on Friday, the day after the regular monthly meeting of the district’s governing board, Rees said the scanner, an important diagnostic tool, would be housed in a modular facility located near the Emergency Room entrance at Jerold Phelps Community Hospital.

Rees said the district recently purchased the land the scanner will be located on — a small parcel that used to house a dentist’s office. Referring to the property’s $140,000 purchase price, Rees said: “That money’s already spent. We got the title within the last two to three weeks.”

Also a done deal is the hiring of Healthcare Facility Design and Construction, a Del Mar, Calif., outfit that under the terms of a $172,000 contract will build the 455-square-foot structure that will house the CT machine. Explaining that architectural plans are already in the works, Rees said construction should start within the next few weeks.

Regarding regulators, Rees said permits will be needed from the state for the scanner and from the county for the building. He put the overall cost of the project, including the scanner’s $446,000 price tag, in the $900,000 to $1 million range.

That’s a fair amount of money, particularly for a small hospital. But Rees said it would be money well spent.

For one thing, it would bring Jerold Phelps in line with most other hospitals. “We’re one of the few hospitals that has an ER but doesn’t have a CT scanner,” Rees remarked.

For another, CT scanners tend to be good for a hospital’s bottom line.  “This project will pay for itself in three to four years,” predicted Rees, who said CT scans alone could generate anywhere from $300,000 to as much as $1 million in additional revenue annually.

Finally, it promises to make things easier for patients, as Board Chairperson Barbara Truitt pointed out to her colleagues during last week’s meeting. “If patients do get transferred [to another health care facility,] their [CT] information will go with them. So it will decrease the time for treatment dramatically.”

Rees, in the interview, said that getting a CT scan at Jerold Phelps would be more affordable for patients than getting one, say, up in Fortuna, where he said the cost is in the $3,000 to $4,000 range.

“So if you can do the CT [scan] here, it’s a savings for the patient and additional revenue for the hospital.”

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.

The CT scanner the district intends to acquire, which Rees described as state-of-the-art, is a high-resolution, 64-slice machine. “Instead of doing 16 pictures in a rotation, this one will do 64,” said Rees, who described the machine as “low dose” compared to other CT scanners in terms of the amount of radiation it delivers to patients.

When asked, Rees explained that CT scans are typically used when a patient has been involved in a vehicle accident to see if there is any internal bleeding. Because CT scans can also reveal a pulmonary embolism, they are also helpful in determining whether a patient is having a heart attack.

“They are used to rule out a lot of things,” commented Rees, who said that certain disorders of the digestive tract can also be identified through a CT scan.

With its diagnostic capabilities limited due to the lack of a CT scanner, the district over the years has frequently had no choice but to send patients elsewhere. “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,” Rees explained.

With such a capability, Rees said a greater percentage of patients would be able to remain at Jerold Phelps.

Typically, Rees said, 10 to 15 percent of ER patients end up in an acute bed at the same hospital. Since Jerold Phelps averages roughly 300 ER visits per month, “we could be admitting 30 to 45 patients a month from the ER to an acute bed.”

Instead, Rees went on, the hospital’s been admitting two to three ER patients a month to acute beds. And in May the number was zero. “Our hospital’s known for sending people out,” Rees remarked.

It turns out Rees is something of an authority when it comes to the beneficial financial effects of CT scanners. 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.

Rees is envisioning a similar “if you build it, they will come” scenario with the CT scanner that’s slated for Jerold Phelps. Given its high, 64-slice resolution, Rees said the scanner “will be the newest and best machine in the area.”

“No one north of us up to the [Oregon] border” has such a high-resolution machine, he contended.

On other matters, the district is giving all of its employees a 1.5 percent cost-of-living increase. The increase took effect last Friday, the first day of the 2016-2017 fiscal year.

Its nursing staff, along with a couple of others in professional positions, such as in the hospital’s laboratory, is also receiving a 10 percent salary increase.

“We compared our salaries to St. Joe’s and Redwood Memorial and Mad River [and learned that] we’ve been paying less than average for nursing positions,” Rees explained.