While health care leaders in central Arkansas began 2022 squaring off against a new ominously named variant of COVID-19, they are relieved to reflect on recent successes and look ahead to non-COVID plans for the new year.
Here’s the latest from some of the state's leading medical organizations headquartered in Little Rock.
The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences is building the state’s first proton center that will be housed within an expanded Radiation Oncology Center on the eastern portion of its Little Rock campus.
UAMS is also building an $85 million, 158,000-square-foot UAMS Health Surgical Hospital that will help it meet growing demand for orthopedic surgeries and also extend its Little Rock campus.
The oncology and proton centers will open in a new 52,249-square-foot building.
All of the teaching hospital’s construction projects are expected to be completed in late 2022 or early 2023, says Chancellor Dr. Cam Patterson.
Circling back to the futuristic-sounding news, the proton center will open in partnership with Arkansas Children’s Hospital, Baptist Health and Proton International.
Proton therapy is an alternative to radiation therapy that uses a precisely focused high-energy beam to target tumors, often in hard-to-reach areas, without affecting surrounding tissue.
There are fewer than 40 proton centers nationwide, and the nearest to Arkansas are in Memphis and Shreveport, Louisiana, according to the National Association for Proton Therapy.
Patterson also touts UAMS’ recently opened energy plant that was completed under its $150 million budget and ahead of schedule.
UAMS is, of course, still working toward its National Cancer Institute (NCI) designation, having recruited around 20 new investigators to help with that, he says. The chancellor adds that about half of the $30 million needed to achieve this goal has been raised.
“We know we're making progress. We won't be submitting our application this calendar year, but I think it'll be pretty soon after that,” Patterson says.
In other news, the hospital is starting artificial heart and heart transplant programs this year and has three new leaders in psychiatry, cardiology and pediatrics, due to retirements and one promotion. Patterson says he anticipates those areas, along with urology, to continue growing.
Meanwhile, it’s not unusual for UAMS to announce grant after grant in rapid succession. Among the recent grants awarded are $18.9 million from the National Institutes of Health for a center to reduce cancer and cardiovascular disease in rural areas and African American communities. The hospital is also a finalist for a $75 million-plus grant that could fund a number of projects aimed at boosting the health care economy of northwest Arkansas.
CARTI is also changing the metro’s health care landscape, quite literally, through construction.
The nonprofit is building an on-site surgery center adjacent to its flagship Little Rock cancer center on CARTI Way for approximately $35 million. It expects to open that center in December.
With equipment, furnishings and more factored in, the project represents an investment of around $50 million, CEO Adam Head says.
This CARTI Surgery Center will be 57,000 square feet, and have robotic surgery capabilities to boot.
“We're going to be able to have multiple oncology surgeries, breast surgery and urologic surgery. Head and neck surgeries for cancer. Different types of surface level, you know, like melanoma surgeries. ... The list goes on,” he says. “With the ability, if needed, to keep a patient overnight for one night, it's going to allow patients to get that cancer-focused surgery in a very non-threatening, easy in and easy out environment. And, with advances in technology, it's actually possible to do cancer surgery in this type of setting [instead of in a hospital]."
In addition, over the past four years, CARTI has aggressively expanded its reach in and out of the metro.
“What we've been trying to do is merge what I would call the worlds of accessibility and trust when it comes to cancer care,” Head says. “It’s not enough just to make cancer care accessible. It has to be trusted cancer care that is accessible or close to home.”
CARTI was preparing in January to open its sixth cancer center in four years, a 30,000-square-foot facility in Pine Bluff. It also has centers in Conway, Russellville, North Little Rock and El Dorado.
The CARTI Foundation is also raising money for “The Bridge,” an 8,000-square-foot support services center that the nonprofit hopes to open on its main campus early next year. The Bridge will offer individual and family counseling, social work support, financial counseling, a resource and appearance center, nutrition workshops, cooking demonstrations and more.
Head says about $450,000 of the approximately $1 million needed for The Bridge has been raised, and funds are still being sought to support the surgery center project.
Baptist Health celebrated its centennial anniversary, performed an innovative procedure, offered a unique therapy, launched a residency program and opened a cancer infusion and radiation therapy unit — all in 2021.
Baptist's own cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Bryan Barrus helped develop, then performed in December, the state’s first minimally invasive procedure to implant a HeartMate III device in an advanced heart failure patient.
Doug Weeks, chief of strategy and innovation, says Baptist has implanted 40-50 of these types of devices annually for years, but this is the first one to be implanted in a minimally invasive way, where the patient’s chest didn’t have to be cracked and instead a smaller incision was used.
Baptist Health was also the first in Arkansas to offer aquablation therapy, which uses water and robotic technology to treat lower urinary tract symptoms caused by an enlarged prostate. Baptist Health Medical Center-Little Rock, Baptist Health Medical Center-North Little Rock and Baptist Health-Fort Smith now offer this therapy.
A new residency program and cancer unit were opened in partnership with UAMS. The UAMS Baptist Health Cancer Center is on Baptist’s North Little Rock campus, and the Baptist Health-UAMS Psychiatry Residency Program is set to begin in July on Baptist Health’s North Little Rock campus.
The program will initially train four residents and then will add four residency slots each year until there are 16 residents in training.
Weeks adds that the system’s research arm has been heavily involved with COVID vaccines and treatments.
“Some of the largest trials in the world have taken place right here at Baptist Health Center for Clinical Research,” he says.
In 2022, Baptist expects to open an urgent care facility at 11402 W. Markham St. It will be the system's 11th urgent care, and its third in Little Rock.
The system is working on Access Baptist, too, which aims to better coordinate hospital admissions.
Baptist Health has been working on a population health services organization as well, which is “really a move towards value-based care where we're going to become more involved in taking risk on the payments and on the health of a population,” Weeks says.
Another work-in-progress for Baptist is improving mental health, “one of the huge needs in the state,” he continues. The system already offers psychiatric intensive care, detoxification beds and geriatric psychiatric beds, but the Baptist Health Foundation is raising funds to help expand geriatric psychiatry and adult psychiatry programs in North Little Rock and Fort Smith.
The foundation also raised funds last year that helped Baptist buy a mobile van and recruit and retain nurses amid an industry-wide shortage exacerbated by the pandemic.
CHI St. Vincent
People, rather than buildings, are the big news coming out of CHI St. Vincent, CEO Chad Aduddell says.
The system with hospitals in Little Rock, Sherwood, Hot Springs and Morrilton, plus numerous clinics, recently hired the state’s first hepatic biliary surgeon — Dr. Abdelrahman Attili, a particular kind of “liver specialist” — and will soon be adding a new vascular surgeon to its Heart Institute, he says. An eighth and ninth neurosurgeon are also coming on board.
Right now, CHI St. Vincent is focused on taking care of its people during the continuing pandemic, Aduddell says.
“It's really a challenging moment in the state, in the community, to provide health care when our own workforce is susceptible like everybody else,” he says. "So we're trying to take care of those folks, make sure they have access to the vaccine, to boosters, to masks, to anything and everything we can do to try to keep them safe.”
The system is also not immune to staff burnout from a nursing shortage exacerbated by the pandemic. CHI St. Vincent is paying more, bringing in additional external staff, offering access to services like care.com to help with child care needs and making chaplains available to staff. It even has a fund to help staff in the short term with financial struggles.
He says, along with those challenges, the system has had a few noteworthy successes.
Aduddell touted that U.S. News and World Report named its Heart Institute the No. 1 heart program again and that its cardiovascular surgery program earned a top ranking by the Society of Thoracic Surgeons for heart surgery.
The Hot Springs hospital received an “A” grade in the spring 2021 Leapfrog Hospital Safety Grades, and the system was also named a 2021 Best Place to Work by Soirée's sister publication, Arkansas Business.
The American Nurses Credentialing Center has also granted both the Little Rock and Hot Springs hospitals a Magnet designation, the highest honor an organization can receive for professional nursing practice, according to CHI St. Vincent.
Other noteworthy happenings include the opening of a cancer center on the system’s Little Rock Diagnostic Clinic campus and the November completion of a $2 million expansion to the cath lab at its Hot Spring hospital.
Arkansas Heart Hospital
At Arkansas Heart Hospital, mum’s unfortunately the word for now on expansion projects.
“We are ambitious, and I can't tell you exactly, but we're looking at geographical expansion of our region, in Arkansas and in the region,” CEO Bruce Murphy says. “Don't be surprised if we have clinics or other facilities across state lines in the near future.”
Until more can be said there, he's happy to share AHH’s 2022 ambitions, one of which is to expand its intensive cardiac rehabilitation program.
“Intensive cardiac rehab is a way of turning people's lives completely around. And, in some cases, we've taken people that have been wheelchair bound for six months and have them walking on a treadmill in three weeks,” Murphy says. “However, it's taking a twist in that we have expanded it now into pulmonary intensive cardiac rehab, or our pulmonary rehab, as well.”
That effort is timely, too. Many COVID patients who had severe cases as well as pre-existing lower respiratory diseases stand to gain the most from this therapy as it could help return to some degree their lung function, vitality and mobility, he says.
In fact, the AHH's recent launch of a dedicated post-COVID pulmonary rehab program is the first of its kind in the state, making it one of only five medical facilities in the U.S. to offer such services.
AHH is expecting to receive new medical devices in 2022 as well, that will allow it to offer more patients nonsurgical treatment of valvular heart disease.
“So you don't have to cut a hole in the chest. We can go in through the leg or through the arm and actually replace or repair the valve,” he says.
But that’s not all AHH has planned for this year. It’s working to expand its bariatric surgery program as well, which is based out of its second hospital in Bryant that opened a year ago.
Another 2022 initiative is to bring back patients with chronic disease who haven’t been making appointments for fear of contracting COVID-19.
For the last two years, AHH has not seen its patient clinic or hospital volumes go past 75% or 80% of their pre-pandemic levels.
“And what we've seen is that, when the patients do present, they're much sicker,” he says.
Research is also all the rage at Arkansas Children’s, according to Dr. Rick Barr, chief clinical and academic officer.
Arkansas Children’s Research Institute will be a key partner in a 14-state consortium focused on long-haul COVID-19 in children, part of a nationwide research effort funded by the National Institutes of Health.
ACRI received an estimated $25 million from NIH for the project and will coordinate the 14 rural states as a pediatric arm of the research.
Arkansas Children’s cardiac team has been doing innovative work as well, having “pioneered a technique where they could actually put a new valve in in our cardiac cath lab” for children who had congenital heart defects repaired when they were infants. As those children grow, about every five years, they need a bigger valve, Barr explains. This technique means they don’t have to have open heart surgery.
The team will be doing those procedures in a redesigned cardiac cath lab, too.
“It's almost a one of its kind of cardiac cath lab that we have in the country," Barr says. "In fact, there now are many, many physicians from other children's hospitals that are coming to Arkansas to look at our cath lab both to see what we're doing to see if they might want to design something like this at their own children's hospitals and to learn how to do some of these procedures. So it kind of put us on the map.”
ACH has also recently put a $17.5 million, approximately 10,000-square-foot pediatric clinic on the map in Pine Bluff. It partnered with Jefferson Regional Medical Center to build and open that clinic.
“We're constantly looking for opportunities like that where we can partner with communities to improve access to good pediatric clinical care and just good networking across the state,” Barr says.