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Back from Bankruptcy: A Rural Success Story?

There’s no shortage of challenges in rural healthcare these days, but I’m always on the lookout for positive stories and examples that might just show “what works.”

It was that mission that led me to drive through a torrential rainstorm to Plymouth, NC, about two hours from my home in Raleigh. I was scheduled for a tour of the Washington Regional Medical Center, a 25-bed community hospital in the rural, northeastern part of the state.

This wasn’t my first visit. When I was last there, more than a decade ago, the facility was known as Washington County Hospital, and it was struggling to survive. With bigger, better-funded health systems in neighboring counties, the traditional service lines and business models were no longer working.

You could see – and even hear – that this was a hospital in distress. I’ll never forget the plink-plink-plink sound of water dripping into buckets in the halls catching drops of rainwater back then. As I walked around in my suit and tie, employees tended to view me with trepidation, but still hopeful – a typical response from people who are concerned about their jobs and their future.

I remember thinking that Washington County might not be able to sustain its own hospital, and things did continue to get worse. By early 2019, with the hospital in bankruptcy, there were news reports of ambulances being diverted and employees going unpaid.

And then, in April of 2020 – just after the first outbreak of Covid-19 in the US – the hospital was purchased by Affinity Health Partners in Texas, a privately held management group “dedicated to bridging the inconsistencies that rural healthcare faces when compared with their more urban counterparts.”

It was that rural mission statement that brought me back for my recent tour. I was hopeful, and expected that things had changed; the reality, quite frankly, exceeded my expectations. Despite the rain, the building this time was watertight, and rather than buckets in the hallway, it was new computers, new lab equipment, and newly renovated common areas, as well as patient and treatment rooms, that caught my attention.

Across the street was a whole new primary care clinic – one of the best signs, for me, that a hospital is positioning itself for a future of declining inpatient demand. And no matter where I went, employees consistently made eye contact with a ready smile and a greeting. Everything about this visit seemed different from my previous one. I got a sense of hope and pride for the community rather than worry about the hospital’s future.

In addition to about 38 patients a day at the primary care clinic, I’m told that Washington Regional typically has a census of 18 to 20 patients for inpatient services these days. The hospital has forged relationships with Vidant and other providers in Eastern North Carolina, and some patients from neighboring counties are brought to Plymouth by a regional transportation service.

Thanks to early signs of success, even bigger changes are in the works, including a full new upfit for the ORs and more physical plant improvements, pending a successful bond issue.

Is Washington Regional Medical Center a case study in “what works”? Based on my one-day visit, I’d say Affinity Health Partners is meeting its commitment to the community and exciting days for the hospital are ahead. Stay tuned!

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