Is the region’s health care keeping up with the growing need?
The health care industry in Northwest Arkansas is working to keep up with a growing population base while $950 million leaves the region each year as residents travel elsewhere for medical services.
In the last 10 years, Northwest Arkansas has seen tremendous growth in its population. The region — composed of Benton, Washington and Madison counties — is one of the fastest growing in the country. From 2010 to 2019, Benton County grew its population from 221,339 people to 279,141. Washington County grew from 203,065 to 239,187.
Steve Clark, president of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, noted the city’s dramatic growth. “Fayetteville grows at a rate of one new person every six hours which means at breakfast, lunch, dinner and midnight, someone is either born in Fayetteville or moves to Fayetteville,” he said.
This rapid growth begs the question: Is the region’s health care keeping up with the growing need?
According to Nelson Peacock, president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council, NWA’s health care system has been growing rapidly as well. But it hasn’t been able to keep up with the overwhelming demand. To get a better understanding, the Northwest Arkansas Council commissioned a study of the region’s health care system and its economic impact. This study, released in 2019, made several significant findings.
The study found that the region has good quality and low-cost primary care but has a deficit in high-level specialty care in basically every category, resulting in residents seeking care outside the region. “This deficit causes an outmigration of this high-level specialty care, causing nearly a $1 billion negative impact on the region’s economy each year,” Peacock said.
If the current trajectory continues, the study foresees a negative impact on the regional economy of $1.43 billion by 2040.
The report also defined an action plan, which the council has begun implementing through its newly created Health Care Transformation division, a collaboration comprising all the major health care providers in the region that have agreed to collaborate on three main goals. According to Peacock, the first goal is to increase the number of graduate medical education (GME) positions in Northwest Arkansas.
The plan calls for creating 200 new residency positions to be competitive with the national average. Arkansas is currently a “donor state,” in that it graduates more medical students than it retains through residencies. The second goal is to increase interdisciplinary research. Because the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) — the state’s academic medical center — is located in Little Rock, historically there have been few opportunities to conduct medical research in Northwest Arkansas.
The collaboration currently is increasing research collaborations through the UAMS Northwest campus in Fayetteville and the recently announced UA research institute will augment these efforts. The third goal is to create a four-year medical school in Northwest Arkansas after developing the building blocks of GME and increased research.
“Achieving these goals over the next 20 years will help reverse that outmigration,” Peacock noted. “It is predicted that if successful, the $1 billion dollar loss would turn into a $2 billion surplus and ensure that NWA residents can receive care in their home region.”
Of course, these plans have been impacted by the arrival of COVID-19. Peacock explained that when Arkansas saw its first case in early March, the council’s health care division transitioned the long-term planning efforts towards COVID-19 surge planning. The CEOs of major providers met to take stock of the region’s bed capacity, personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilator supply. In the first few months of the pandemic, Northwest Arkansas did not see a surge in cases, and this time was used to prepare. Later, when the region began to experience spikes in COVID numbers, those predeveloped plans helped manage the surge.
“Northwest Arkansas hospitals have been effective in their efforts to treat patients, but resources are strained. Testing capacity is limited, and the workforce is getting exhausted,” Peacock said.
Jason Wilson, CEO of Medical Associates of Northwest Arkansas (MANA), said that his offices saw a large decrease in patient volume in late March and early April. But MANA now is seeing an uptick in the number of patients with COVID-19-related issues (office visits and testing) and are also doing some “catch up” on visits and procedures that were delayed during the initial slow down.
“Keeping up with COVID demands is a constant struggle,” Wilson said. “We are also struggling with the ability to obtain PPE and testing reagents to allow us to consistently test patients in NWA. Overall, I believe the clinics and hospitals in NWA have adapted to the COVID demands as well as can be expected, but it is important to flatten the growth curve of COVID in NWA for us to handle the volumes until a vaccine can be developed.”
Peacock added, “It is vital for the community to follow public safety guidelines — wear masks in public and practice social distancing and proper personal hygiene.”
Learn more about the council’s health care collaboration at NWACouncil.org/health-care.
NWA Partners Get Needed Supplies to Health Care Workers, Facilities
Another Northwest Arkansas Council initiative supported by several local business and philanthropic partners provided much needed aid to health care entities across the region impacted by COVID-19.
Combined financial and in-kind donations exceeded $3 million from the Blue and You Foundation for a Healthier Arkansas, J.B. Hunt, RevUnit, Walmart Foundation and Walton Family Foundation.
J.B. Hunt made an in-kind contribution of nearly 300,000 pieces of PPE for medical facilities in Northwest Arkansas. The donation included much-needed supplies such as masks, gowns and goggles to ensure the safety of health care workers and patients during the pandemic.
RevUnit created a web-based interface for regional hospitals to track existing cases, bed availability, status of testing and available supplies to ensure regional coordination and cooperation.
Funds from the Walton Family Foundation were used to purchase ventilators, fund public health messaging and ensure acute care hospitals in Northwest Arkansas would be able to maintain a ready workforce.
And to build capacity to work in communities especially hard hit by the pandemic, the council used funds from the Blue and You Foundation for a Healthier Arkansas (the Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield nonprofit) and the Walton Family Foundation to engage community health navigators from within the Marshallese and Latin American populations.
The navigators are employed, trained and supervised by the UAMS Northwest Regional Campus and Community Clinic and will work with all division partners.