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Sister on the go.

Sister On The Go

She walks down the stairs, carrying a basket of plump, pink tomatoes.

Her friendly smile reflects the rosiness of the tomatoes.

Sister Judith Marie Keith, chief executive officer of St. Edward Mercy Medical Center at Fort Smith, wears a crisp white habit and a sky-blue blouse.

She is immediately likable.

It is her lunch break from a meeting of the Arkansas Hospital Association.

The tomatoes, Arkansas' best from Bradley County, are a token of appreciation from the meeting planners.

Never mind that Sister Keith's curriculum vita reads like a who's who in American hospital administration, including stints at Cornell University and Harvard University.

And never mind that she has given speeches to medical groups in cities such as San Francisco, New Orleans and Dallas.

It is apparent within a few minutes that her work is motivated by a deep spiritual conviction - a conviction that includes a belief in the need for smaller community hospitals.

Her resourceful approach to health care was noted in 1979 when Time published an article about an innovative "satellite concept" designed to save rural hospitals. That article lauded St. Edward for leading the way.

"With the change in the Medicare payment program that occurred in the mid-1980s, the financial safety net for hospitals was removed," Sister Keith says. "For the first time in history, we started reading about hospitals in trouble.

"Many of them went bankrupt. Many of them closed. It was apparent to us at St. Edward that there were some programs that could be mutually beneficial while preserving one of the most precious resources in a small community, its hospital.

"Our regional hub concept started in the late 1970s ... We were asked by the leadership at Paris [Logan County] if we could do something. Their hospital had closed. We figured out a way to, in essence, take a wing of St. Edward to a community 50 miles away without building a kitchen, a supply processing and distribution facility, a pharmacy and other facilities. All we really had to do was add a little water to our soup."

The St. Edward recipe worked well.

The Paris hospital saved more than $200,000 in construction costs that would have been necessary for survival had the hospital remained a separate entity.

And St. Edward saved about $200,000 per year year in staffing costs.

"We built an innovative system to truck goods and services to that facility," Sister Keith says. "We take drugs, food, linens and many of the other supplies that are needed on a daily basis. The truck returns with their soiled linens and their list of needed drugs for the next day."

Twelve years later, several rural hospitals in Arkansas have closed.

But in the Fort Smith area, regionalization has proved successful.

Three years after establishing North Logan Mercy Hospital at Paris, St. Edward purchased an ailing acute-care facility at Waldron. With St. Edward's support, a 26-bed (all private rooms) hospital, Mercy Hospital of Scott County, was established.

A physicians' complex was also built, and a 74 bed nursing home was renovated and expanded to 89 beds. The old Waldron hospital was converted to a 22-apartment residential care facility, Mercy Village.

In 1990, a 39-bed hospital at Ozark was acquired.

Other facilities in the St. Edward system include an 80-bed psychiatric facility three miles from the main campus at Fort Smith and a minor emergency center at Van Buren.

"If a community doesn't have a hospital, over time it loses its doctors," Sister Keith says. "It has a hard time attracting industries. It was of value to us to look where there was a need, and then respond to that need."

PHOTO : COMMUNITY HELPER: St. Edward Mercy Medical Center at Fort Smith has stepped in to provide small communities in west Arkansas with quality health care. St. Edward utilizes a unique regional hub system.

PHOTO : HEALTH HUBS: Sister Judith Marie Keith, chief executive officer of St. Edward Mercy Medical Center at Fort Smith, has garnered national recognition for her innovative approach to health care.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Sister Judith Marie Keith, chief executive officer of St. Edward Mercy Medical Center
Author:Mitchell, Ruth
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jul 29, 1991
Previous Article:Baptist is biggest.
Next Article:Linking the state.

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