At 75, need to support SVH greater than ever

Bill Lynch muses about the history of Sonoma Valley Hospital, and its future.|

Sonoma Valley residents past and present have been fortunate and wise in their insistence that we have our own hospital and emergency room, and that these facilities keep pace with the advancement of modern health care.

Today, 75 years after Sonoma Valley Hospital became California’s first designated community hospital, it has defied the odds stacked against its small size and not only survived, but also excelled in delivering state-of-the-art care to us in the comfort of our own community.

Throughout our hospital’s history local citizens have made decisions, including taxing themselves, approving this progress.

Until 1945, the only hospital beds were located in a farmhouse/barn on Burndale Road. But in that year, with the encouragement of Sonoma Valley’s four doctors, local leaders formed a hospital district and leased a two-story building in Buena Vista (now the site of Bartholomew Park Winery.) Valley residents approved a tax that made our first hospital a reality.

Then in the 1950s, local citizens once again came together and approved a bond ($262,000) to build a new hospital at its current Andrieux Street site on property donated by August Sebastiani. It opened in 1957.

Time and again Sonoma Valley citizens have voiced and voted their approval not only of the hospital’s location, but also for the many changes and improvements recommended by local physicians, hospital administrators and fellow Sonomans elected to serve as health care district trustees.

Progress like this is the one constant in modern medicine.

As the science of healthcare advances, we will notice how our local hospital takes on the appearance of the futuristic flight deck of a starship. Our doctors, nurses and techs aren’t using hand-held “Trekky tricorders” yet, but they’re getting pretty darn close.

Our doctors, nurses and techs aren’t using hand-held ’Trekky tricorders’ yet, but they’re getting pretty darn close.

Those thermometers they aim at your forehead are pretty cool. And don’t be surprised if the next generation of such devices also take your pulse, and test your blood for viruses.

The realities of 21st century healthcare – fewer patients staying overnight and most procedures and services provided on an outpatient basis or in your home via telemedicine – make the changes we’ve made and are making absolutely necessary to keep our hospital open and sustainable.

Essential physician and emergency services delivered with care and compassion remain the heart of our community hospital, as they have been for 75 years, but space that used to be necessary for a larger number of beds is being converted to a host of modern spaces in which local residents can receive treatment and care that would otherwise require a lengthy drive to an out of town facility.

The most visible recent advancement occurred in 2014 with the opening of the brand new Emergency Room and Surgery Center. The next changes are taking place right now in and around the old ER and surgery wing on the first floor. When the $21 million project, funded primarily by community contributions, is finished we will have the best diagnostic imaging technology in the North Bay, serving not only local residents, but UCSF Health patients throughout the region.

This affiliation and integration with UCSF makes it possible for local residents to have direct access to the Bay Area’s most advanced health care providers without going to San Francisco.

Less visible, but still significant, is the move that put all of the hospital’s acute care, and ICU beds on the third floor of the west wing, optimizing space and staff in a way that is cost effective and better for patient care.

Sonoma Valley’s small population of around 43,000 with nearly 25 percent 65 and older, makes our hospital’s financial sustainability a constant challenge. With 56 percent of its patients on Medicare and another 18 percent on Med-Cal (YTD, April 30), the hospital must deal with the fact that those two government plans do not fully cover the cost of the services rendered. It isn’t fair that hospitals in larger communities receive more from Medicare for the same procedures, but it is a hard fact with which our community hospital must deal.

It is why some changes, like closing underused obstetrics and contracting out the operation of the skilled nursing care unit, though unpopular, were necessary.

Other challenges are not simply financial. We live in earthquake country. Every hospital in the state is subject to a law that requires their most critical services, including surgery and ER, to not only survive a major earthquake, but also remain fully operational.

This law alone has spelled the end for other hospitals serving communities in our state. Parts of Sonoma’s facility were built in the 1950s and the latter quarter of the 20th Century. They did not meet the current seismic standards. Upgrading, seismically retrofitting and repurposing them is an ongoing local success story, in spite of a lean budget.

With necessity as the mother of its invention, our hospital isn’t just making those spaces seismically safe, but also using them to add and upgrade a host of services that strengthen the hospital financially, improve it competitively and enable it to better serve our community.

No Sonoman will have to leave town for an MRI, CT scan, ultra sound, mammogram, X-ray, echocardiogram, EKG, pulmonary function testing, DEXA scan, stress testing or fluoroscopy. In addition, world-class physicians from UCSF in a host of specialties will offer office hours in Sonoma.

From that day in 1945 when a few local doctors and community leaders made the commitment to create our Valley’s first real hospital, the key to every forward step has been local support. It has never been a given that our small community could afford to have its own hospital. Instead, we decided it must. We have supported construction bonds, parcel taxes and major funding projects that have made our community hospital among the very best in the country, and getting better even as this story is written for its 75th birthday.

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