Ty Cobb Regional Medical Center Artist Rendering

Rural health: If you build it, will specialists come?

Ty Cobb Regional Medical Center Artist Rendering
A new 56-bed hospital in Lavonia, to be named Ty Cobb Regional Medical Center, would provide nearby rural communities with a state-of-the-art facility, as well as attracting much-needed specialty care for the area, project supporters say. Architectural rendering by Earl Architects.

When rural Georgians need specialized care for serious conditions such as diabetes or heart failure, they’re often faced with limited options and a long drive.

Anna Burch drives an hour from Hartwell to Athens to see her physical therapist. “I have to take half a day off work to go,” she said. And while Burch likes the care she receives, she and other rural residents feel the strain of traveling for specialty care. “It makes a difference,” she said.

If a unique partnership between a group of physician-investors and Ty Cobb Healthcare System works out as planned, residents of Hart and Franklin counties may be able to consult endocrinologists, cardiologists, oncologists and other specialized doctors much closer to home.

Supporters of this ambitious plan, the first joint venture between a nonprofit hospital system and a physician investment group created in Georgia, say it would do more than bring much-needed specialists nearer to local patients: It would also substitute a modern facility for two aging hospitals, create new jobs and keep health care dollars in the local economy.

Ty Cobb’s two hospitals, Cobb Memorial Hospital in Royston and Hart County Hospital in Hartwell, are both more than 50 years old, often have empty beds, and for years have suffered worsening financial distress that will eventually close one or both of them. Most of their work is providing acute, emergency and outpatient care, and Cobb Memorial also has a birthing center.

Most patients who need specialty care, however, get a referral from a local primary care doctor and drive past the local hospitals on the way to Athens or Anderson, S.C.

New facility on the horizon

In 2009, Ty Cobb Healthcare partnered with NGTC Health Properties, a real estate investment group made up of more than 50 physicians from Gainesville, Athens and the surrounding areas, to close its two financially failing hospitals and consolidate them into a new, regional facility near Interstate 85 in Lavonia. The goal is to build a state-of-the-art facility that will attract specialized practitioners.

A certificate of need was granted in June 2010, and NGTC Health Properties will finance and oversee construction of the new $52 million hospital. After the project’s completion, likely in 2012, Ty Cobb Healthcare will manage ongoing operations. Many of the investors say they will provide services for the hospital or set up offices nearby.

This is the first time such a business model has been set up in Georgia to address the challenges of providing quality care in rural counties, said Lauren Papka, a spokeswoman for Ty Cobb Healthcare.

The partnership hopes that the hospital and surrounding development will be a magnet for specialists, improving physician availability and efficiency and keeping patients closer to home.

The project is innovative, Papka said, because it seeks to expand access beyond the primary care level.

Jim Spencer, former Hart County Hospital Authority chairman, also believes the new hospital will be an asset to the area. “You get more bang for the buck,” he said. “Now what was 50 miles away is only 15 miles away.”

Greater need in rural Georgia

Not only are there fewer cardiologists, neurologists, gastroenterologists and other specialists in rural areas, but demand for their services is higher.

Georgia’s 2 million rural residents are more likely to suffer from heart disease, obesity, diabetes and cancer than their urban counterparts, according to the Georgia Division of Public Health. For Hart County this pattern holds true: The leading causes of death in
2007 were heart disease, lung cancer and stroke – all occurring at rates higher than the state average.

Jack Edmunds, chairman of Ty Cobb Healthcare’s Board of Directors, said the regional hospital could serve as a new paradigm for rural health initiatives in Georgia.

While those involved with the project are convinced of its benefits, not everyone is pleased with the closing of the two neighborhood hospitals. Some people in those communities worry that the increased distance from Hartwell and Royston will be a problem during emergencies.

In response to concerns about the hospital’s location, Edmunds acknowledges that it may be a change, but said that the new 56-bed facility will be no more than 15 miles from each current hospital site.

Papka also stressed that existing local primary care and family providers won’t be going anywhere. In addition, she said, the project is expected to foster economic growth and create new jobs for rural Hart and Franklin counties, both areas with high unemployment rates.

“There’s so many possibilities and so many positive things this project can bring to the area,” said Papka.