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Reinventing the region's oldest hospital

Southern Oregon’s oldest hospital received infusions of financial support, medical expertise and appreciation in its second century of operation.

Under the region’s largest health care provider, Asante Ashland Community Hospital succeeded in keeping its doors open, says Chief Executive Officer Sheila Clough. Admitting fewer patients, however, will help to safeguard that success.

“We think the hospital should be for the people who are more sick,” says Clough. “We are attempting to lead the way … to reduce the amount of need for acute care.”

Visits to Ashland’s emergency department increased by 20 percent over the past two years, says Clough. Also driving demand is the country’s aging population. Moving management of more medical conditions from the hospital to clinics will ensure that critical care is available in the future to those who need it most, she says.

“The hospital is integral to our quality of life,” says Sandra Slattery, executive director of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce. “People want a hospital in their own community.”

Ashland’s hospital has been a community fixture since 1907, when Dr. Francis G. Swedenburg founded it in a former private residence on the town’s Main Street. Christened Southern Oregon Hospital, the building later was towed by a team of horses up Second Street to the present-day site of Winchester Inn. A fire that ignited March 11, 1909, by a defective flue ravaged the hospital. But it reopened just days later at 586 E. Main St.

Land for a new hospital was purchased on Siskiyou Boulevard, and the building — roughly located on the current site of Southern Oregon University's Stevenson Union — opened April 30, 1910. The new Granite City Hospital started a school for nurses in 1912, and surgeries, including appendectomies, tonsillectomies and procedures for ovarian cysts, carcinomas, abscesses and broken bones, were performed weekly, according to Swedenburg's record book.

More than 100 years later, surgical services are key to the hospital’s growth, says Clough. Between 2013 and 2015, surgeries numbered about 2,300, a 10 percent increase, she says. Urological and gynecological surgeries are the latest additions to hospital specialties that include retinology and orthopedics, according to Asante’s November report to the Ashland City Council.

The city took the hospital’s helm in 1930 with a ballot measure that passed by an overwhelming majority. Numerous challenges had strained hospital operations, beginning in 1918 when Spanish influenza struck Ashland residents at an unprecedented rate. Many died before the epidemic began to wane after raging for several months.

Efforts to refurbish and modernize the facility in 1921 sprang from the leadership of New York advertising tycoon Jesse Winburn, who bestowed the name "Community Hospital." But financial hardships followed Winburn’s purchase before the city intervened.

Thirty years later, councilors approved construction of a new hospital at its current Maple Street site, on the north end of Ashland. It was Oregon’s last city-owned hospital when, in 1996, officials transferred operation to a private, nonprofit corporation. The city still owns the land and related facilities, leased to the independent corporation.

But it wasn’t enough for the hospital to survive, says Slattery, past president of the hospital foundation. To thrive, the hospital needed to strengthen its financial base by collaborating with a larger health system. Asante, owner of Rogue Regional and Three Rivers medical centers, emerged as the preferred partner and assumed ownership of Ashland’s hospital in June 2013.

In the first year under Asante’s umbrella, the hospital slashed its annual operating loss from $3.8 million to $1.5 million, according to reports to the City Council. The following year brought a small operating gain of $115,862.

The hospital’s improved finances roughly coincide with the timeline when more Americans obtained health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Profits will climb to $1 million in the 2015 fiscal year, says Clough.

“Those dollars get reinvested,” she says, referring to the hospital’s nonprofit status.

Reinvestment strategies likely will arise from surveys the hospital is conducting, says Clough. But requests for more obstetric care already have been “heard loud and clear” at the hospital, which hosts about 300 births annually and offers the region’s only water-birth center.

“It’s been so popular for us,” says Clough, explaining that the hospital’s capacity for water births will double by the summer.

A new midwifery program with three employees soon will complement the hospital’s obstetrics, says Clough. And principles of complementary medicine that the hospital adopted a decade ago continue to hold sway.

“Humanizing” and “personalizing” the patient and family experience comes through emphasizing nutrition, healing touch, music, art and other alternative therapies, including visits with trained therapy dogs. Picking and choosing from this menu adds nothing to a patient’s hospital bill.

“We believe those therapies complement the care,” says Clough.

Keeping prices “affordable” is the hospital’s challenge, as so many households find it difficult to pay for out-of-pocket medical expenses, says Clough. “Grassroots” efforts to become more efficient are aiding Ashland’s bottom line, she says. Expenses for office supplies have been cut by 40 percent, and energy usage pared by 25 percent. Standardization of pharmaceuticals has saved $100,000 annually in one physicians group alone, she adds.

Paying the largest average wage in the city — hospital wages total $17 million annually — the hospital has “huge economic importance,” says Slattery. And while employee satisfaction ranked near the bottom of industry surveys when Asante took over, it soared to the 80th percentile as of last July, says Clough. The “top tiers” of customer service and workplace conditions are within reach for the hospital’s 110th year of care, she adds.

“Our patients have felt that.”

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.

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Ashland Community Hospital was taken under Asante's wing in 2014. Mail Tribune file photo
Levi Pace and Meadow Rucker celebrate the birth of their son, Macyn Pace, who was the first baby of 2014 born at Asante Ashland Community Hospital. Mail Tribune file photo