Hospital chief reflects on Schuyler tenure
SCHUYLER COUNTY--It's no secret many small hospitals across the country are experiencing serious financial strains. Some are closing, leaving the communities they served scrambling to find alternatives to meet their medical needs. But others are doing better. "Schuyler Hospital has been able to have a positive bottom line for the past four years," says the hospital's about-to-retire CEO, James Watson.
"It's an ongoing challenge," he says. In part, because like many rural areas, a relatively high proportion of Schuyler County residents are Medicare recipients. The area also is known for high rates of smoking and obesity in addition to nationally widespread problems like drug and opioid abuse. Those less healthy tend to need more health services; but Medicare and Medicaid reimburse hospitals and health care providers at a lower rate than other health insurers.
"You have to be more efficient," Watson says. To that end, Schuyler Hospital affiliated with Cayuga Medical Center in late 2014, becoming part of the larger Cayuga Health System. The partnership, among its other benefits, allowed Schuyler Hospital to bring back specialty medical services, some of which had been missing for several years previously, as physicians retired or left the area. Finding medical specialists needed by area residents can be difficult but it's a situation improved by the hospital's association with the Cayuga Medical Center which hosts interns and residents through Cornell University's Weill Medical Center.
"I think it was a really important achievement," Watson says of Schuyler Hospital's partnership with Cayuga Medical Center. "It started before I got here, but I helped move that process along and I feel good about it." It's a move he was familiar with. In his previous positions at Massena Memorial Hospital in Massena, New York and Ira Davenport Hospital he saw similar financial challenges requiring similar remediation.
In order to be viable, every hospital has to provide basic levels of care. "Every community has to have an Emergency Room (ER) and primary care physicians and easily accessible outpatient testing," Watson says. "In our case we're also able to have a nursing home and inpatient beds--not every rural hospital is able to have inpatient beds."
Behind the scenes, hospitals also have to have viable plans for treating an extraordinary number of patients in the event of a major accident, weather event or pandemic. Hospital staff have regular drills to ensure preparedness.
The recipient of two multi-million dollar grants, Schuyler Hospital is currently in the midst of a transformation allowing primary, urgent care and acute care services to be offered under one roof, with a new addition upgrading inpatient facilities.
But Watson says what makes Schuyler Hospital special is the people who work here. "When I started here four years ago and we had a meet-and-greet, I was in my late 50s and I wasn't the oldest person by a long shot," he recalls.
He asked people how long they'd been working at the hospital and found many long-term staffers. "People are very generous," he says. "We really serve our own county. It's a relaxed setting, not a production line, making sure everything is right each step of the way. Outcomes are good. Patient satisfaction is high."
Another plus is having Seneca View as part of the hospital complex as a rehabilitative facility as well as a skilled nursing facility. It means patients can transition back and forth as needed, receiving physical therapy and/or dialysis without leaving the building. "We're able to offer very personalized care," he says. "A lot of people [patients] are familiar to us, so you feel like you're taking care of friends and family."
Having fallen in love with this area, it's going to be tough to give up the job, he says. Watson will be succeeded by Rebecca Gould, who has served Schuyler Hospital for 20 years, most recently as its chief financial officer and chief operating officer.
With children settled in the Southern Tier and a new home in Watkins Glen, Watson and his wife are looking forward to an enjoyable and active retirement including hiking, biking, kayaking and exploring the region's wineries.
"So I probably won't be directly involved in the hospital until I become involved in Seneca View --as a patient," he concludes.