Sitka hospital aims to become regional health care hub

Sitka’s new hospital CEO is thinking big — really big. In remarks to the Sitka Chamber of Commerce last week, Jeff Comer said he’s developing a strategy to expand Sitka Community Hospital into a regional health care provider.

Listening to Jeff Comer makes you think of the old palindrome “A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!”

Jeff Comer says of the Affordable Care Act: “Whether you agree with it or not, it will help our hospital.” (Photo by Rachel Waldholz/KCAW)
Jeff Comer says of the Affordable Care Act: “Whether you agree with it or not, it will help our hospital.” (Photo by Rachel Waldholz/KCAW)

Sitka Community Hospital’s CEO has been on the job since September. He recently described his vision to the Sitka Chamber of Commerce at the end of November.

He’s a man with a plan, and a hospital.

“We want to be the dominant health care provider in Southeast Alaska, and I’ve just mapped out a plan for how I think we can get to that. It’s going to take a few years. It’s not going to happen immediately, but we are starting to move in that direction. We have recruitment in place, we have the walk-in clinic across the street that we’ll put into place. We’ve got telemedicine coming on line in a May-June timeline. So we’re heading in that direction.”

Comer comes from Phoenix, Arizona. He’s managed 12 major hospitals over his career — and he’s the child of a professional hospital administrator. He told the chamber of commerce that Sitka represented a particular challenge. Although he considers the hospital to be “a gem,” he also believes it’s one of a dying breed.

“It is getting very difficult to survive as a standalone hospital. Very few standalone hospitals are standalone anymore. They’re part of bigger systems. That’s not what our board wants; that’s not what our city wants; it’s not what I want for this hospital. I want this hospital to stay standalone. We do not want to merge it or expand it.”

But that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t want to expand the hospital’s capacity. He calls it “external expansion.” It includes recruiting more providers, setting up a walk-in urgent-care clinic in Sitka, and opening clinics staffed by physicians’ assistants, nurse practitioners, and physical therapists — in places like the local pharmacy, or even the Hames Center.

Comer appeared on KCAW’s Morning Interview the day after his chamber presentation and elaborated on this idea.

“Part of the model, where I see us going in the future, is focused more on the mid-level providers. They can provide 90 percent of the health care that people need, and we can do it in a community-oriented setting. So to add to that, we’re looking at several clinics downtown — one facility we’re looking at right across the street from the Westmark, where we’ll have a physician assistant located. People on lunch, morning breaks, can go right down and see that person, get that primary care, get their lab work done, and then get back to work without waiting a couple of hours to see a doctor.”

Besides adding face-to-face providers, Comer says Sitka’s hospital is expanding its virtual care. He says telemedicine will be online by early summer.

“We will have full specialty coverage for our ER physicians, so if they need a consult with cardiology or endocrinology, it will be a live feed, where that patient will actually see that physician in Providence in Anchorage, and that physician will be looking at the patient, reviewing all the vitals, all of the clinical information, and working with our local providers to provide the best possible care.”

Telemedicine is key component of Comer’s regional strategy. Sitka, he says, needs a dermatologist, but can’t afford to keep one. But Sitka, Petersburg, Wrangell, and Juneau — for example — could easily keep a dermatologist busy, and thanks to telemedicine, that specialist could live anywhere in the region. The same is true of other specialties — even surgical specialties like orthopedics — where significant follow-up care is needed.

Comer’s vision is definitely a new direction for Sitka’s local hospital. It was only a few years ago that Sitkans contemplated the idea of absorbing the 12-bed facility into the neighboring Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital, which is run by the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium.

He was asked about this by a member of the chamber audience: Can Sitka continue to support two hospitals?

“In the long term I don’t think we really can. It is very expensive to duplicate OB-GYN services. It’s very expensive to have two operating rooms. SEARHC taking all patients now has had an impact on us. So long-term, I don’t think we can — where we are today. That’s why I’m putting all this together to expand outside of Sitka.”

Comer said that “on the department level” Sitka Community Hospital and SEARHC remain close allies, but at the strategic level — not so much. Although he didn’t rule out partnership in the future, Comer told the chamber, “I am not interested — and the board is not interested — in a joint venture right now.”

Rachel Waldholz and Melissa Marconi Wentzel contributed to this story.

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