Juan Tellez, a physicist, and Tara Rex, a radiology therapist, set up a patient in the 4-D CT scanner at Franciscan Health Burrell Cancer Center in Crown Point. Staff photo by Tony V. Martin
Juan Tellez, a physicist, and Tara Rex, a radiology therapist, set up a patient in the 4-D CT scanner at Franciscan Health Burrell Cancer Center in Crown Point. Staff photo by Tony V. Martin
Northwest Indiana hospitals say they're increasingly adding technologies and services so that fewer and fewer residents have to leave the Region for health care.

“Unless a patient requires highly specialized medical care that can only be found at tertiary academic medical centers, most of the care a patient might need can be delivered right in our community," said Dean Mazzoni, president and CEO of Franciscan Health hospital in Michigan City.

To that end, his hospital opened a new $243 million facility in January along Interstate 80/94 in January.

He said the facility has the "latest and greatest in medical and clinical technology" but also patient-safety and infection-control elements. That's important, he noted, because more than 99,000 deaths occur every year due to hospital-acquired infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Through surveys and focus groups, we have found that patients and their families prefer to receive medical care closer to their homes," he said.

"The convenience of accessible, quality, medical care reduces stress and anxiety, which we know from studies also promotes health and healing.”

Another new Northwest Indiana hospital is being built in downtown LaPorte. The $125 million building is expected to be completed in 2020. Ground was broken in August.

"We'll have all the latest and greatest equipment and facilities to take care of our patients and our community," said LaPorte Hospital CEO Ashley Dickinson.

She noted that her hospital is also part of an effort, being led by Pat Bankston of Indiana University Northwest, to bring medical residents to the Region, which advocates say will improve the quality of care in Northwest Indiana. LaPorte Hospital has also recently recruited about 20 new providers to the area, in specialties such as primary care, pediatrics and OB-GYN, she said.

"A lot of our physicians trained at academic institutions and came to a community hospital to care for the patients here," she said.

"Community hospitals give really good care, taking care of our friends and neighbors here in the community. You can pull our quality scores and compare them to facilities in Chicago. You're getting very good care here in Indiana."

Technology leads the way

Much of that can be attributed to improvements in medical technology. Dr. Alan Kumar, chief medical officer for Community Healthcare System, noted that his hospital group — which consists of Community Hospital in Munster, St. Catherine Hospital in East Chicago and St. Mary Medical Center in Hobart — has invested in technology to improve care of heart disease, strokes and bad joints.

He pointed to transcatheter aortic valve replacement, or TAVR, a minimally invasive way to replace narrowed aortic valves. "It is cutting edge. It is much quicker for recovery. You're home the next day, generally," he said. The hospital system is also planning to offer that service for the mitral valve.

In addition, Community Healthcare System is about to become comprehensive stroke-certified, with 24-7 coverage for endovascular care, he said. That's due in part to a partnership with Rush University Medical Center on a telestroke program, which allows stroke patients to get diagnosis and treatment plans any time, as well as the Infinity deep brain stimulation system, which helps minimize the impact of tremors in patients with advanced Parkinson's' disease.

The health system also recently started offering the Mako robotic-assisted surgery system for partial and total knee replacements. "It can shorten recovery time and reduce pain after the procedure," Kumar said.

"The 3-D mapping allows for a better surgical plan, can customize care better, make for more precise cuts, smaller incisions. It's been a huge hit for us so far. And the best benefit is patients get better outcomes."

He said community hospitals are able to offer these services because conditions that used to be rare — and thus only performed at academic medical centers — are now becoming more common because of the aging baby boomer population.

"You want to be able to provide that at a location is convenient to patients and families," he said, adding that local care is better coordinated because all the providers are in one place.

Care advances for brains, hearts, cancer

Neurology, oncology and cardiovascular care are big areas of expansion for local hospitals. Sean Dardeau, CEO of Porter Health Care System, said his hospital group has signed a neurosurgeon to start in the summer, bought a PET/CT scan for its comprehensive care center at Porter Regional Hospital in Valparaiso, and also been doing advanced heart procedures like TAVR.

Porter Health Care System added nine new physicians in 2018, mostly specialists, including a colorectal surgeon and three cardiologists.

And with outpatient volume growing by nearly two-thirds in 2018, the hospital group plans to open three new outpatient sites this year.

"We're trying to increase access to our services and reduce wait times," Dardeau said.

"It's a hassle to go to Chicago, and you've got Chicago-trained physicians who work here. You get Chicago right here at home. We want to be able to have quality options at home. We're more than just a small-town hospital."

Another hospital system that has expanded its oncology offerings is Franciscan Alliance, which opened a $50 cancer center last July in Munster.

“There’s no reason for patients to cross state lines for treatments and technologies that are available right here," said Dr. Alan Coon, radiation oncologist at the Franciscan Health hospital in Crown Point.

Those include the TrueBeam radiation system, which allows "really precise targeting of tumors, decreasing toxicity on normal structures," said Dr. Peter Tothy, an oncologist at Franciscan Health hospital in Crown Point, and "not only chemotherapy, but immunotherapy, biologic drugs and targeted treatment.

"From the medical oncology perspective, many of the doctors are academic-trained from the same hospitals — local, regionally, at nationally known places — so that we bring that training and experience into the community," Coon said.

"(Patients) can get superior care locally without the travel and inconvenience and can work closely with their other local specialists and primary care doctors to support the patient in multiple ways, rather than potentially fractured care."

Hospitals partner with Chicago facilities

Franciscan also is getting in on the telestroke game, implementing a program in conjunction with Northwestern Medicine. Local hospital systems have improved their care in part by seeking these types of partnerships with Chicago hospitals.

Another such alliance is between Methodist Hospitals and the University of Chicago to bring a cardiothoracic surgeon to Northwest Indiana.

Methodist has also acquired a Gamma Knife, "an advanced radiosurgical tool that allows us to do noninvasive treatment of brain tumors, blood vessel malformations and nerve problems," said Dr. Vincent Sevier, chief quality officer for Methodist Hospitals, with campuses in Gary and Merrillville.

"Through that, we've been able to expand our treatment options for oncology patients. It provides our physicians the ability to treat patients without exposing them to additional (radiation) exposure or lengthy hospital stays."

Methodist also has TrueBeam, which has similar benefits, he said.

"I think for most patients, they want to know that there are providers who have the skill, who can take care of them, and they can get their services close to home. I think most would rather have that, than travel outside of Indiana, into Chicago, to receive care," he said.

"Not only Methodist but other organizations are looking for ways to bring that level of care to the community, so that patients can get what they need in a place where they feel comfortable, and we desire to deliver that in a community-based setting for them."

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