Local fundraising—including a gift to the tune of $1 million from Dolly Parton—as well as a large investment from the parent health system help build a new hospital in rural Tennessee town
After his wife, Cherie, was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2003, Bryan Atchley, mayor of Sevierville, Tenn., began the routine of driving 45 minutes, one way, five days each week, to 485-bed University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville so Cherie could receive radiation treatments.
The need for high-quality oncology services in the rural, eastern Tennessee town and surrounding area served as the catalyst for the construction of Covenant Health System’s LeConte Medical Center, a 79-bed, full-service replacement hospital for the system’s former Fort Sanders Sevier Medical Center that opened in February.
On the same 70-acre campus as LeConte— across the street from the old hospital—is the Thompson Cancer Survival Center. Atchley, also a member of the state’s Health Services and Development Agency, recused himself from the certificate-of-need proceedings when the time came to approve a replacement hospital in the region. As he explains, there was no opposition to building LeConte, which is named after one of the highest peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains and is visible from the hospital.
“There’s the old feeling that to get good healthcare, you had to go to Knoxville,” Atchley says. “We’re trying to erase that.”
The story behind the need for and develop- ment of LeConte Medical Center in Sevierville reflects some of the most troubling problems— and potential solutions—facing many rural community hospitals today: the need for improved facilities with advanced information technology systems during a time when access to capital is difficult, and partnership looks like an attractive means of survival.
“Out of the roughly 175 hospitals in the state, about 140 of them are already tied into some kind of system-working arrangement,” either as subsidiaries or affiliations with national groups, says Bob Gift, who works in Chattanooga, Tenn., as director of the operations and improvement services line for IMA Consulting, a Chadds Ford, Pa.-based healthcare finance and management firm.
Gift says that aside from critical-access hospitals, the two dozen free-standing facilities in Tennessee tend to be smaller, rural facilities. “I think the thing that we will continue to see is the trend toward consolidation of hospitals in some type of working arrangement,” Gift says. “They have to find ways to secure revenue and then find ways to manage their expenses on an ongoing basis.”
In outlining some “survival strategies” for rural hospitals, Gift says facilities need to evaluate their resources. “Is it a relatively new facility, or is the hospital an aging plant that requires a significant amount of capital infusion?” he says. “The major consideration is the availability of medical-capital equipment,” such as sufficient technologies, he adds. “If they need capital infusion, maybe you’re looking for some sort of strategic partner to infuse that.”
Capital is one of the six major areas of concern for America’s small community hospitals that was identified in the first part of a threepart series titled, Surviving the Storm: Tumultuous Times for America’s Small Community Hospitals, a report funded by Siemens Financial Services and released this month. The
Covenant Health System invested $115 million in the new LeConte Medical Center, located on
a 70-acre site in Sevierville, Tenn.