Aging Homer placing new demands on its hospital

Posted: Thursday, March 01, 2001

HOMER -- Aging baby-boomers won't go quietly into the night of old age, but are more likely to battle that irresistible force of nature all the way to the ground, say medical professionals from Homer.

That fact spells opportunity for the health care community as a growing population of seniors demands a broader choice of health care services over the next two or three decades, said the moderator of a hospital strategic planning retreat held in January at Land's End Resort.

In the next five years, expect demand for medical services to rise dramatically as the population over the age of 45 jumps by more than 25 percent, said Lari Ward of Lari Ward & Associates, a Washington state-based consulting company. It makes good business sense to take steps to meet that demand.

"The out-migration from Alaska is slowing," Ward said. "Thinking of patients as customers makes you think differently about planning."

Hospitals everywhere are investigating new business approaches for attracting patients as they deal with changes in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement programs, Ward said. "They're looking at how to bring more people into the hospital."

The population most likely to be attracted by better services and a wider choice of options is the baby-boom generation, which is approaching retirement age. As a group, they expect more from the health care system than did their parents or grandparents, South Peninsula Hospital administrator Charlie Franz said.

"The difference between the baby-boomer generation and the pioneer generation is that the baby-boomers will demand medical services to correct problems" that pioneers probably just lived with. "Pioneers might have gotten around on a bad knee or hip for years. Baby-boomers will want to get that fixed and will demand that we can do it. We will be challenged. There will be a demand for physical and occupational therapy to get people back to an active lifestyle."

The hospital is trying to meet that demand. A case in point was the recruiting of Dr. Daniel McCallum, an orthopedic surgeon, Franz said. Also, the hospital just expanded its physical therapy facility.

But it wasn't only recognition of the changing population that drew hospital staff, members of the South Peninsula Hospital board of directors and members of the hospital's service area board to the weekend planning retreat.

"The key was to take a look at their vision for the hospital," said Ward. "They want to become a center of excellence," that could attract medical business from beyond the immediate service area. To do that, the hospital may have to integrate a variety of health-care services now offered in or desired by the community, Ward said.

According to a community survey conducted by Ward's company, 84 percent of the 396 people responding said they wanted an "integrative and complementary medicine program" developed in Homer, which could include "alternative medicine" such as acupuncture and Naturopathy.

That's a "loud and clear mandate," said Cecilia Buckley, a statistician with the company. Some 82 percent said they would favor a bond issue to pay for additional expansions at the hospital if necessary to meet community needs, she said.

While respondents said they want additional services, 93 percent of those surveyed said they were either satisfied or very satisfied with the service they've received personally through the hospital.

"The challenge is how to tweak that up" another percentage point or two, Buckley said.

By 2006, better than 36 percent of the population of the South Peninsula Hospital Service Area will be over 45. That continues a trend started in the 1980s that saw Homer becoming a retirement community, with many pioneer Alaskans opting to move here rather than Outside, and a growing number of younger residents choosing to stay as they age.

The baby-boomers will add to that growth. As a group, they are increasingly health conscious, Ward said. But boomers tend to be more choice-conscious than their parents when it comes to health care. They will demand a measure of self-directed health care and will want to pick from a variety of medical approaches. As one person at the seminar put it, they may want the chemotherapy for cancer, but they will insist on a liver cleansing at the same time.

Creating an integrated medical approach that offers choices won't be a snap. It will require getting practitioners of different disciplines to work together, Franz said. Physicians educated in the scientific method are cautious about health care approaches that rely more on anecdotal evidence than on reproducible proofs of efficacy. Conversely, alternative medicine practitioners may see the "medical establishment" as shutting its eyes to other possibilities.

"There is a huge demand for alternative medical services across the country," Franz said. "Homer has a large number of alternative medicine practitioners and a lot of consumers. My hope would be that we can develop an approach that is complementary ..."

Franz said he would recommend moving toward such a system in a slow and incremental fashion, adding methods of health care that have demonstrated some utility, such as massage and acupuncture.

Ward said she expected to return to Homer in late February to work with the local health care community on teamworking. She said such efforts are going on around the country, and changes are likely to come "in baby steps."

The planning sessions got under way in earnest on Saturday morning. Ward spoke about options open to South Peninsula Hospital, among them, maintaining the status quo as an acute-care facility or evolving into a broader medical center.

"There is a huge opportunity for the community of Homer to become a health center, not only for Alaskans, but maybe for patients from elsewhere in the country," Ward said.

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