Patients from Tri-State Memorial Hospital in Clarkston have been transferred to towns as far away as Billings, Mont., and Portland, Ore., in recent weeks.
The scarcity of beds for patients whose injuries or illnesses are so severe they need care not available in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley is one of the biggest problems the hospital has faced during the present spike in COVID-19 cases, Tri-State CEO Kym Clift said.
The hospital’s staff has previously encountered situations where it was difficult to find hospitals that could accept patients needing treatments such as open-heart surgeries, but those instances are happening more frequently, and the length of waits for beds has increased, Clift said.
“We have kept patients longer in our (intensive care unit and emergency department) than we may otherwise because of the challenges with transferring and bed capacity at those larger facilities,” she said. “For the most part, hospitals in the states of Washington and Idaho are doing their best to try and support the smaller hospitals… (but) it has definitely been a challenge.”
The hospital’s efforts on that front are just one part of the response to the pandemic Clift has been overseeing since becoming the hospital’s CEO at the end of March.
Her approach has been to keep the operations of the 25-bed hospital as normal as possible at a time when demand for its services is unprecedented.
The hospital’s main entrance is closed, and everyone entering the hospital or any of its clinics is screened for COVID-19 and required to wear a mask.
The hospital’s walk-in minor care clinic offers COVID-19 testing, but only for patients with symptoms, because the volume of individuals seeking the tests has risen so much in the last couple of months.
So far, the hospital has been able to maintain all of its outpatient procedures, such as colonoscopies, arthroscopic surgeries and tonsillectomies,, Clift said. It has had to postpone only scheduled surgeries for patients that needed overnight hospital stays a handful of times.
“We manage our beds on a daily basis to make sure we can meet the needs of the communities,” she said.
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Tri-State also put a focus on maintaining full capacity in its emergency department, primary care clinics and the segments of the hospital that do routine screenings, such as mammograms, and it is encouraging individuals to use them as needed as the pandemic continues.
“They can continue to come in and get in within a reasonable time frame and receive their care,” Clift said.
Being treated for minor issues before they worsen can help keep pressure off hospital beds, she said.
“What we don’t want to have happen is we don’t want individuals to delay necessary care and then exacerbate whatever condition that they may have,” she said. “We did see that with the first wave. We don’t want to end up there again.”
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As Clift oversees the medical side of Tri-State’s operations, she’s also keeping an eye on revenue, making sure the hospital is generating enough money to cover its costs and have money available for upgrades, such as a recently announced multimillion-dollar replacement of its inpatient wing.
Initially, Tri-State, along with other hospitals, had a financial setback with the pandemic in 2020 and put 80 of its more than 600 employees on furlough, but it has since rebounded.
“The hospital weathered that storm,” she said. “There were federal funds available to every hospital across the country to help. … We’ve done a good job of being good stewards of our resources.”
Part of what made that possible was the loyalty of its patients, who choose Tri-State for its high quality care that is delivered by empathic employees, Clift said.
The priority that all staff members — including housekeepers, nurses and physicians — place on making sure every patient has the best possible experience is part of what made her decide Tri-State was the right hospital for her to fulfill her goal of becoming a hospital CEO.
“It had a culture that you could feel when you entered the building,” she said. “To me that spoke volumes about the leadership of the organization, from the board all the way down, and the support the organization was providing to staff and to the teams both in the clinics and hospital.”
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Before coming to Tri-State, Clift was the chief operating officer of Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center in Corvallis, Ore., where she oversaw the 188-bed hospital.
It had a Level II trauma center and other operations, including 40 medical practices and service lines she also supervised, such as radiology, that served Good Samaritan and three other hospitals.
Even though Tri-State is smaller, with 25 beds, the work she does in Clarkston still has a lot of complexity. And she likes the structure of the organization, which also includes Evergreen Estates, a senior community with apartments and assisted living. The hospital has a federal designation as a rural critical access hospital, which allows it to receive more robust reimbursements from programs such as Medicare.
As a private, not-for-profit organization, it funnels all its revenue into patient care, employee compensation, equipment upgrades and facility maintenance. It can accept donations, but it can’t levy taxes.
“That additional support comes voluntarily from community members, not through a tax base,” Clift said. “It says this community wants to support its hospital because they do so willingly.”
Williams may be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 848-2261.