By Kari Hawkins, Redstone Rocket staffOctober 8, 2008
Base Realignment and Closure activities occurring at Redstone Arsenal mean more than new buildings, additional Army civilian employees and a growing North Alabama community.
They also mean new services throughout Huntsville and the surrounding area as local leaders work to make North Alabama more attractive to potential transferees. And that can only mean good things for current local residents as improvements also better their quality of life.
This is most evident in one area that the Tennessee Valley BRAC Committee has addressed during the past year. In November 2007, the committee learned that Army Materiel Command transferees were concerned about the perceived inability to locate available physicians in Huntsville.
"What we are trying to do is if we hear of an issue for transferees we try to resolve it," said Joe Ritch, chairman of the Tennessee Valley BRAC Committee. "We were hearing multiple stories from multiple groups of transferees having trouble with finding physicians."
With those complaints in mind, the BRAC committee and officials with the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce decided to take a proactive approach to address the issue.
"The need to address health care issues came to our attention because of BRAC employees," said Mike Ward, the Chamber's vice president of government affairs. "The Chamber is generally not involved in trying to recruit physicians or in other medical issues. We focus on economic issues and let other things take care of themselves. But when an issue affects economic development - in this case when it is a concern of employee transferees coming into Huntsville - we get involved."
The BRAC committee and Chamber officials met in December 2007 with representatives of Huntsville Hospital, Crestwood Hospital, the University of Alabama-Birmingham Medical School in Huntsville and the Huntsville/Madison County Medical Society. Work began on researching and addressing issues in regard to local physician services and availability.
"We learned a number of things from the meetings we had," Ritch said. "We learned there is a nationwide shortage in some specialties including pediatricians and dermatologists. So this problem is not unique to Huntsville.
"We learned there is a general misunderstanding of what family practice physicians do and that family practitioners can do 90 percent of what a pediatrician can do. So, families can use family practitioners if pediatricians are unavailable and still get the same level of care. We also learned there is a communications problem in that many transferees called the medical society for physician referrals, but the medical society will only refer to members and not all physicians are members of the society."
Other factors that became evident in discussions were: Huntsville is the largest city of its size with one residency program; adding residency programs in Huntsville is difficult because there is a freeze by the federal government on funding residents; residents tend to stay where they do their residency; there has been no significant effort to keep UAB-Huntsville residents in the area; and specialties tend to attract physicians to programs not in the medical school in Huntsville.
As a result of focusing on the physician issue, the BRAC committee has worked to provide better information to transferees regarding the role of family practitioners, now provides information on its website about health care in the area and has made health care a primary presentation topic at meetings with Army Materiel Command and Missile Defense Agency transferees.
In addition, UAB-Huntsville is working to add two new residency programs, one in internal medicine and another in emergency medicine, efforts will be made to recruit UAB-Huntsville residents to stay in the area, and Huntsville Hospital and Crestwood Hospital agreed to increase physician recruiting and subsidies. But more importantly, both hospitals immediately began work to establish physician referral hotlines, which are both now in operation and accessible to all North Alabama residents.
"The hotlines are a facilitator for those moving into town and trying to find a physician," Ritch said. "The issue was brought to the attention of the hospitals and they both jumped on it."
Burr Ingram, spokesman for Huntsville Hospital, said the hospital has always provided residents and newcomers with medical information and information on physicians accepting patients. But that service was better emphasized beginning in March when the hospital established a physician referral hotline at 1-866-581-BRAC (2722) or locally 265-9240. It can also be accessed through the hospital's website at www.hhsys.org/brac/.
"We are doing a little bit more to make sure they get connected," he said. "After we get a call on the hotline, we re-contact the caller to make sure they got connected with a physician and to assist with any questions about the medical community. We are also contacting physicians regularly about their availability to new patients, updating their specialty information and checking on the types of insurance they accept.
"This is a coordination, communication and connection type program to meet the needs of the community as a whole. This is as much about telling the story of health care in our community as it is about referring physicians."
The hotline also provides information about specialty areas and explains the benefits of using family physicians, which Huntsville has in abundance.
"The primary concern of any family coming into a new area is the medical services and the quality of care provided," Ingram said.
"At Huntsville Hospital, we have 650 physicians with privileges. The medical services we provide at Huntsville Hospital or anywhere in the community will rank among the best in the nation. Our heart program is in the top 10 percent in the country. We have an outstanding trauma center, a women's and children's hospital with pediatric specialties and a St. Jude clinic. Our quality of care in Huntsville is very high."
Lori Light, spokeswoman for Crestwood Medical Center, said Crestwood has always had a physician referral program, but in April that program was more formalized and expanded because of BRAC concerns. The Crestwood Medical Center Physician Referral Line can be reached by calling 429-5000 or visiting the hospital's website at www.crestwoodmedcenter.com.
"Now we are doing a biannual survey of physicians in the community and we update their information on our website. We also update the website whenever we have new physicians," she said.
Light said Crestwood also has an aggressive physician recruitment plan, and has recruited 16 new physicians, many in the primary care fields of family practitioners and internal medicine, to the community so far this year.
"We've also commissioned an organization to look at how many physicians are needed to serve our community," she said. "We are always looking at demographics and trends, and trying to match what we provide with the evolving medical needs of the community."
For more information on Huntsville's medical services and other quality of life issues, visit www.tennessee-valley.org or www.asmartplace.com.