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Hospital debate underscores importance of communication

Now that the prospect of a second hospital in Lee County has seemingly ended for the short term, local discussion has turned to how Tupelo-based North Mississippi Medical Center (NMMC) will respond to community input regarding its mission and emphasis.

Recently, a measure that would have allowed a hospital to be built in competition with NMMC was killed again through a legislative maneuver in the Senate.

Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee chair Alan Nunnelee has said in previous published media reports that while he has heard concerns regarding NMMC`s responsiveness to the community, he wanted to give the hospital time to address various issues. Major community concerns have ranged from costs to community responsiveness.

The prospect of a second hospital has been an emotional one for local residents, sparking heated debate regarding potential merits and ramifications. Moving forward, some local community leaders say that they hope that community discussion of the issue will resolve outstanding concerns.

“I am pleased that recent community discussion has brought to light various issues of concern and I see the process as something that has been healthy for the community,” said Tupelo Mayor Larry Otis. “I’m seeing an openness and I have confidence that changes will be made.”

Otis said that he believes that NMMC understands the gravity of the issues that have been brought to light but he said that change also takes time and requires community patience. He said that he has prepared a list of his own concerns that he has communicated to NMMC officials and that he believes that the institution is committed to listening and remediating negative perceptions.

NMMC`s board recently announced that it approved offering discounts to BlueCross BlueShield policyholders who utilize inpatient and outpatient services at the Tupelo hospital, and observers assert that this is a step in the right direction following a contractual stalemate.

Tupelo banker Lewis Whitfield, a former NMMC board chairman, said the debate over a second hospital underscores the importance of ongoing communication between institutions such as NMMC and community constituents.

“We have an excellent health care organization by any means of measurement-cost, efficiency, management, quality of care, and so on,” Whitfield said. “In my opinion, the problem is that there`s a gap between reality and perception and we have to bridge that.”

Whitfield said that he believes that the prospect of a second hospital is “clearly a mistake.” He said that his assessment of similar situations has convinced him that financial and medical resources would be split if a second hospital emerged in Lee County, with a resulting negative impact to the overall community.

Rep. Jamie Franks of Mooreville who co-authored legislation in the House with Rep. Steve Holland of Plantersville said that he hopes that NMMC will earnestly address the community`s concerns.

“I hope that NMMC gets back to what it was intended to be – a community hospital that is responsive to the needs of the community,” Franks said. “I believe in competition and I will wait and see to determine how NMMC performs in its efforts to remedy concerns.”

North Mississippi Health Services interim CEO Gerald Wages stressed in a recent interview that the organization is listening at all levels and that steps are being taken to address community concerns. A community advocacy hotline has been established by NMMC to listen to community residents’ concerns and suggestions for improvement and advertisements in area newspapers have delineated NMMC community efforts.

Wages said that more research will be done to pinpoint specific concerns and ways to address them. Importantly, he added that NMMC is creating a community advocate position to guide the organization with an ongoing community responsiveness initiative.

Wages stressed that communication efforts will be reinforced with various constituents, including legislators, patients, staff, board members and community residents.

“While we were surprised by some feelings that the medical center is not connected to the community given our record of support, we do not dismiss any concerns and we want the community to know that all concerns are very real to us,” he said. “Moving forward, we don`t take anything for granted and I believe that the input we have received and the process that we are experiencing will make us a better organization in the long run.”

North Mississippi-based journalist and consultant Karen Kahler Holliday writes frequently for the Mississippi Business Journal. Send comments about her column to mbj@msbusiness.com.

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