Athens, OH,
20:11 PM

OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital Emergency Department Transformation

In a small town, good and bad news travels fast. Perhaps nobody knows that better or has felt it more profoundly in Athens than Mark Seckinger, president, OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital.

Seckinger was born in Athens, grew up in Nelsonville, attended Ohio University, and returned nearly five years ago to lead the hospital that serves the community he’s long called home. “When you go to the store or walk anywhere and hear someone say, ‘I was in the ER last night,’ you worry about what they are going to say next,” says Seckinger.

He also recalls getting a letter from a woman who complained about a long wait at the hospital. For him, every letter feels personal. But this one struck a deeper chord within the Nelsonville native.

“The woman addressed her letter to me personally and added a P.S. that said, ‘I went to school with your mom and dad, tell them I said hello,’” says Seckinger. “We have to do better for this community.”

The worry and complaints were legitimate. The emergency department wait times had been above national standards for years. It would get busy and the staff couldn’t recover. The physical space wasn’t conducive to heavy volumes of patients. While customer service remained good, wait times were too long and defined the patient experience.

That is in part why O’Bleness has gone through a multi-year, $30 million effort to upgrade the footprint and inner workings of the hospital, and transform the patient experience. The final piece of this work is a $5 million overhaul to the emergency department – the hospital’s nerve center and first point of entry and experience for many patients.

The Power of the Right People

To ensure the impact of this transformation was felt, O’Bleness leadership acknowledged that a new provider group of physicians and nurses needed to be addressed.

“Our previous provider didn’t have the resources we needed and couldn’t provide triage and nurse practitioner staff during our peak times,” says Rhonda Dixon, chief nursing officer, O’Bleness. The realization of seeking a third provider group in seven years focused the leadership team on what they needed – and didn’t need.

“We didn’t want another national group,” says Seckinger. “Rural areas are not easy fixes, especially if providers don’t live here and understand the community.”

According to Jason T. Weihl, DO, vice president of medical affairs at O’Bleness, a different culture also needed to be ushered in at the hospital. Key to that happening is having good relationships with doctors and nurses so they understand the hospital and community culture. “If we don’t get this right with our people, we won’t be successful,” says Weihl.

Getting it right ultimately led to OVP Health based in Huntington, WV. As a provider group to the emergency department, OVP Health understood the health care realities in rural Appalachia and were rooted close to home that would facilitate open lines of communication to quickly address O’Bleness’ needs.

“When they said they could address our pain points – the coverage, the physicians, and wait times – we felt they could be a critical part of the solution,” says Weihl.

“OVP Health made the commitment to provide the services we need, especially during our peak times,” says Dixon. “They committed to helping us reduce our wait times and get to less than 20 minutes (of waiting) instead of 45 minutes.”

On November 12, OVP began serving as the emergency department provider group to provide enhanced staffing, resulting in an additional 12 hours of physician coverage in the emergency department every day. The new partnership is viewed as an important tactical and cultural move that will improve the patient experience.

Digitally Connected Care

New technology will soon accompany the new spaces and faces that are transforming the patient experience. In February, a “one patient, one record” digital platform known as CareConnect, which is already active at other OhioHealth hospitals, will be deployed at O’Bleness. It will ensure that all patient medical records are in one place for medical staff—and patients—to access.

“Our current electronic medical records system is cumbersome and it’s not optimized to help the patients we transfer to other OhioHealth hospitals or specialists,” says Dixon.

The new system will not only streamline transferring patients, but also expedite internal processes including discharges at O’Bleness.

“The discharge process currently takes about 20 minutes,” says Weihl. “With CareConnect, we’ll be able to confirm discharges in about three minutes.”

Now, after all the investments have been made, after OVP Health has come on board to staff up the emergency department, and as O’Bleness is about to apply proven technology to further streamline the patient experience, Seckinger, Dixon and Weihl are still doing one thing that few might expect.

They continue to read every comment card and letter shared with the hospital.

“Digging into the comments that come to our hospital and taking each one to heart is a big part of what has driven this change,” says Weihl. “We are listening to what the community and patients have to say every single day. For me, it is the whole reason I was called to medicine. You want to truly affect people in a positive way on a consistent basis.”

“We see people at their worst,” says Dixon. “We get one shot to make that the best situation it can be under the circumstances, and it means everything to us.”

Seckinger sees all the work done to date as a lead-up to a defining moment, one that will continue to play out in the months to come. For someone who was born at Sheltering Arms Hospital, which preceded O’Bleness, it’s also a special opportunity.

“Normally you get one chance to make a first impression, but we’re getting a rare second chance,” says Seckinger. "We’ve owned our challenges and fixed them. Change doesn’t happen overnight and it’s not going to be perfect, but this will be noticeable and sustainable.”

A year from now, he says he wants to be able to look back at what a big change this was and how important it’s been to the community. He wants to be able to walk into town and not worry about the chatter. And even if it’s quiet on the streets, he’ll continue to keep a pulse on public sentiment by reading the letters and comment cards with Weihl and Dixon at his side.