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‘A Wonderful, Wonderful Fit’

 

Dr. Lynnette Watkins says she is most definitely her father’s daughter.

By that, she meant she is a second-generation ophthalmologist, following the lead set by her father, L.C. Watkins, who is one of the first African-Americans practicing in that specialty in St. Louis.

“When I say that I stand on the shoulders of giants, I don’t take that lightly, and first and foremost is my dad,” she noted. “He’s been my biggest supporter, mentor, and point of light.”

But there were other influences as well, including her mother, an educator, and, more specifically, an early-childhood-development administrator, who was one of many who taught her the importance of giving back.

“It was always expected that, with the privileges and opportunities that were afforded to me, there was an expectation to serve and to give back,” she said. “Which is why, with each position and opportunity that I’ve pursued, I’ve always had that mindset first and foremost in my mind; it’s why I wanted to have a career in healthcare.”

This is the philosophy Watkins brings to her latest assignment, as president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton. 

She takes the helm at CDH after a lengthy stint as chief medical officer for the Baptist Health System/Tenet Healthcare – Texas Group, and arrives at an obviously stressful, tenuous, and uncertain time for all healthcare providers, one still dominated in every way by the COVID-19 pandemic and its latest surge.

“While there’s been a lot of challenge and a lot of sadness during the pandemic, there’s also been some wonderful lessons and teachings in the resilience of people.”

Watkins, who arrived at the hospital on Sept. 27, brings to this challenge, and CDH, a wealth of experience. Like a growing number of those leading hospitals and healthcare systems, she has made the transition from direct patient care to managing those who provide that care. For her, it was a seismic but, in many ways, natural change.

“Many people have asked if the transition was difficult, and I’ve said that it was not,” she explained. “That’s because I found myself at peace moving from a clinical role to one that still has clinical elements, but instead of being the one-on-one patient-physician relationship, which is incredibly treasured, it’s one where I have the ability to impact multiple patients and improve the working lives of staff, medical staff, and other providers. I can make a bigger impact on a broader scale.”

She said there were many factors that went into her decision to come to CDH, summing them up with that often-used phrase “it was a perfect fit.” Elaborating, she said the area served by Cooley Dickinson, mostly Hampshire and Franklin counties, is one with a great deal of need, and she has experience working with such populations, as we’ll see.

Beyond that, she said this opportunity allows her an opportunity to take what she has learned at many different stops during her career and apply them to what will be a different — and obviously significant — challenge.

Lynnette Watkins says one of her first priorities will be meeting with as many community leaders and constituencies

Lynnette Watkins says one of her first priorities will be meeting with as many community leaders and constituencies — as well as frontline caregivers and hospital staff — as possible.

Watkins said the learning process has continued through COVID, which she believes has brought out the very best in those working in healthcare, while also putting an even greater focus on teamwork, collaboration, and innovation.

“While there’s been a lot of challenge and a lot of sadness during the pandemic, there’s also been some wonderful lessons and teachings in the resilience of people, resilience of systems, the importance of self-care and downtime, and the importance of working with others and understanding that it’s OK to say, ‘I need help,’” she explained. “What this has also done is challenged us to innovate, whether it’s in processes, such as supply-chain initiatives with PPE or the distribution of vaccinations and other pharmaceuticals such as monoclonal antibody infusions, or working together in groups to really take care of our community.

“That resilience, that collaboration, that innovation, that devotion to self and others have really been positive,” she went on. “The patience and working with a team have really helped me grow — as an individual, as a physician, and as a healthcare leader.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Watkins about her latest assignment, why she came to CDH, and … how being her father’s daughter will help her as she takes on this latest career challenge.

 

Background — Check

In some ways, Watkins said, coming to CDH is like coming home — or at least coming back to that part of the country where she did her residency.

Specifically, that would be Mass Eye and Ear in Boston. But she did get out to the Northampton area on several occasions during those residency years, so she’s not a total stranger to the 413.

There were several career stops between Boston and CDH, including a lengthy stint back at Mass Eye and Ear, where, from 1999 to 2004, she directed the Emergency Ophthalmology Service and walk-in clinic and was an attending physician in the Ophthalmic Plastic Surgery Service. And Watkins said all of them have helped her grow as both a provider of care and a manager of people. And she intends to put all of that experience to work at CDH.

Our story starts in Missouri, where Watkins, as noted, became intent on following her father into the medical field and earned her undergraduate and medical degrees at the University of Missouri – Kansas City and an internship in internal medicine at Truman Medical Center in Kansas City.

“I grew up wanting to go into medicine, and I was asked quite often if I was going to be an ophthalmologist like my father,” she recalled. “Candidly, I got tired of the question. It was through a series of rotations and the fact that I needed money for car insurance that my father said, ‘why don’t you come work for me in my office?’

“I did, and I liked it,” she went on. “I didn’t tell him for a while, but I did make that transition, and eventually declared that this was the specialty I wanted to be in.”

This decision brought her to Mass Eye and Ear in 1995 for her residency and stint at the at the walk-in clinic and Ophthalmic Plastic Surgery Service. She was there during 9/11, a moment in time and her career that convinced her to be closer to family and, in her words, “focus more on family.”

Elaborating, she said she went into private practice in Indiana and eventually became managing partner of a multi-specialty group, one with a large geographic footprint.

The administrative leadership of that group would later put it in “a significant financial disadvantage,” as Watkins put it, adding that she was thrust into the role of interim CEO. She said she would eventually wind down the two parent companies into multiple spinoffs, which are still ongoing today, an experience she described as both challenging and rewarding, and  one that would in many ways inspire her transition into management and leadership roles.

“We were able to keep patients seen, keep people employed, and move colleagues forward so they were able to practice — it was a huge, huge learning experience,” she told BusinessWest. “I joined one of the spinoff groups, but found myself wondering why I went through that experience.

“And it was actually a couple of colleagues, neither of whom had medical backgrounds but did have healthcare-industry backgrounds, who said, ‘this happened to you for a reason; you have this knowledge — why don’t you consider leading a hospital or healthcare system and pursue healthcare administration?’”

She thought about it and talked with family members, especially her father, to get buy-in and support. After securing it, she started pursuing healthcare administrative positions.

Her first stop was at Trinity Health in South Bend, Ind., and from there she joined Tenet’s Abrazo Community Health Network in Arizona as chief medical officer.

When that position was one of many eliminated in a round of budget cuts, she used connections she’d made to land a job as chief medical officer and chief operating officer at Paris Regional Medical Center in Texas, a system that was and is surrounded by some of the poorest counties in Texas and neighboring Oklahoma. Her time there was another important learning experience.

“One of the great joys of working there was working with people who keep in mind the individual who has limited access, limited transportation, and limited resources,” she said. “And in rural facilities where often there is one specialist or one type of provider, and there is limited access, having a high level of collaboration, particularly with the medical staff and the provider staff, is very important.

“Overall, that was an incredible learning experience, understanding the intricacies of running a facility that’s technically complex,” she went on, adding that, as chief medical officer and chief operating officer, she had oversight over just about everything except nursing, finance, and HR.

 

Right Place, Right Time

The learning experiences continued at the Baptist Health System/Tenet Health Care, where that system confronted not only COVID, but the severe — and highly unusual — weather pattern that visited most of Texas near the end of February.

Some called it ‘Snowvid,’ said Watkins, adding that healthcare systems had to confront not only the pandemic, but extreme cold that knocked out power and water to many communities.

“We had COVID patients, we had no electricity, we were on generators, and we did not have water, she recalled. “Managing through all that was a challenge, although what each of these events has shown is that it has not changed why we do what we do, but it does force us to change how we do it.”

Elaborating, she said some recent developments or trends will continue for the foreseeable future, including telehealth, which she described as a game changer for both the inpatient and outpatient sides of the equation. This became evident in Texas, as well as the hospital that would become the next line on her résumé.

Watkins told BusinessWest that the position at CDH came to her attention through a recruiter, and after more talks with family and friends, she decided that managing a smaller community hospital would be an appropriate next step on her career journey.

“It’s a wonderful, wonderful fit,” she said of CDH, adding that her views on the delivery of healthcare and areas of focus are in sync with those of the hospital and its staff. “First and foremost, I’m a physician, and I want to make sure that we’re delivering safe, high-quality care and that we’re great stewards of resources, whether it’s finance or personnel or capital, and that’s what Cooley Dickinson does.”

Elaborating, she said the opportunity to lead a hospital that is an affiliate of the Mass General Brigham system, formerly Partners Healthcare, was also appealing.

When she talked with BusinessWest before her arrival, Watkins said one of her first priorities is to familiarize herself with the community and meet with many different leaders and constituencies — in whatever ways COVID will allow. Which means a lot of Zoom meetings, some phone calls, and, when possible and appropriate, in-person gatherings.

“My goal is to get out there and meet the community where they are at as quickly as possible,” she said. “I think it’s also important that I meet the team; meet our front-line caregivers, staff, and providers; and understand what’s working well and where we have opportunities.”

Returning to her thoughts on the lessons learned from the pandemic, Watkins said that  managing through this crisis has enabled her to grow and mature as a leader — out of necessity.

“Physicians inherently have trouble delegating,” she told BusinessWest. “And I fully disclose that I am one of those physicians. It’s been a journey, but the pandemic has really helped me to leverage and trust the team and be a better partner, a better collaborator, and a better support.

“One of the things I work hard to do is listen and gather information before executing,” she went on. “And that’s been incredibly important during this time.”

When asked about the management style she brings to CDH, Watkins started by saying she is an optimist by nature, and she believes this is an important trait in this business.

“We have the singular privilege of being able to take care of patients and the community, whether it’s one-on-one or on a larger scale,” she explained. “And from that optimism, I assume good intentions and assume that those who chose this profession want to take care of people as well. We will have challenging conversations, and it will be important to challenge and push each other to do better and innovate, but I would like to consider myself to be collaborative, open, very much driven, direct, and someone who feels it’s important to have fun at work. That’s because this work makes for long days, and there needs to be some form of celebration, some sort of fun.”

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

Danger Zone

By Mark Morris

MHA’s Alane Burgess (left) and Kristy Navarro

MHA’s Alane Burgess (left) and Kristy Navarro say social isolation during the pandemic has been problematic for young people.

 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the national suicide rate declined slightly in 2019, the last year for which full statistics are available.

Unfortunately, the latest government data does not take into account the arrival of COVID-19 early in 2020. But area mental-health professionals know what they’re seeing and hearing almost 20 months into the pandemic.

Amanda Hichborn, director of Outpatient Clinical Services for River Valley Counseling Center’s Westfield office, said the impact of COVID has in some ways been a double-edged sword when it comes to suicide risk.

“The risk factors for suicide have definitely increased,” she said. “At the same time, we’ve also seen protective factors that have come into play.”

On top of fears about our health, Hichborn explained, the pandemic also affected basic needs such as food — as evidenced by shortages in grocery stores — as well as the ability to sleep well, employment security, and freedom to move around wherever and whenever we want.

At the same time, she has seen people spend more time with their family, increase their fitness by taking walks to get outside, and improve their diets by eating more at home.

“Vulnerable groups like disenfranchised people were already struggling with basic needs. Throw the pandemic on top of it, and their needs are impacted tenfold.”

“These protective factors work to actually decrease the risk of suicide,” Hichborn said. “When we go through something as a community, we feel a kind of connectedness, which also helps decrease suicide risk.”

However, she was quick to point out that, while we may all be in this together, we’re not all in the same boat.

“Vulnerable groups like disenfranchised people were already struggling with basic needs,” she said. “Throw the pandemic on top of it, and their needs are impacted tenfold.”

Young people in particular have had a tough time with the pandemic. Alane Burgess, clinic director of the BestLife Emotional Health & Wellness Center at the Mental Health Assoc. (MHA), noted that, while depression and anxiety have increased for all ages, it’s been particularly tough for adolescents, and suicidal thoughts and attempts are on the rise.

“With adolescence, there is a sense of permanency that things won’t change,” Burgess said. “When they experience social isolation, it feels like forever to them.”

Kristy Navarro, a clinical supervisor at MHA, said keeping young people safe in a pandemic can run counter to how parents raise their kids.

“Normally we want our kids to share, but now we’re saying, ‘don’t share, and don’t touch anything,’” she said. “When we discourage sharing things with friends, it can be a hindrance to the growth and development of young children and adolescents.”

 

Managing the Stress

Dan Millman agrees that the pandemic has affected young people in unique ways.

“It can be hard for young people who miss rites of passage like graduations and other celebrations and rituals,” he said. “Another part is the social stuff like having fun with friends and being independent. All of that has been much harder to do with the pandemic.”

Millman is the director of ServiceNet’s DBT program, or dialectical behavior therapy, an evidence-based approach to psychotherapy that can be effective with people who are exhibiting self-destructive behaviors.

Amanda Hichborn says staying home more has benefited people’s health

Amanda Hichborn says staying home more has benefited people’s health in some ways, but the pandemic has had plenty of negative effects, too.

DBT differs from conventional therapy in that it follows a more structured protocol. The six-month program is designed to give clients the skills to manage the urges to engage in self-harming behaviors. Millman described four main techniques of DBT:

• Mindfulness, a skill that helps the client focus on healthy coping skills to prevent negative thought patterns and impulsive behavior, and which is integrated throughout DBT techniques;

• Distress tolerance, which is most effective in improving a moment with soothing or distraction skills. “The point of this skill is to help survive the crisis without making things worse,” Millman said;

• Emotion regulation, a technique that allows clients to strengthen their emotional resiliency to more effectively navigate powerful feelings; and

• Interpersonal effectiveness, which Millman described as developing assertiveness skills so clients can ask for what they want, better address their needs, and set limits when necessary.

“The point of DBT is to help people feel like their life is worth living and has improved,” he explained. “It’s not a good outcome to have someone stay alive while still suffering the torment they have been feeling.”

Relieving the torment starts with allowing the client to accept they have suicidal thoughts. In this context, acceptance means acknowledgement, not approval.

“When someone has suicidal thoughts, it’s a sign to them that something is wrong in their lives that needs to change,” he said. “Acknowledging those thoughts can actually be protective for the person.”

Another area of DBT involves stepping into painful emotions. Millman explained how human instincts try to protect us and avoid things that make us feel anxious, so we tend to put them off. Avoiding a difficult conversation is a good example of something that needs to be done, but creates anxiety before we do it.

“I talk with people about what they can and cannot control. Though we can’t control events outside, we can control ourselves and our responses to those events.”

One way clients deal with emotional pain is to engage in self-harming behaviors such as cutting themselves.

“We ask the client to just sit with the urge to cut themselves without acting on it,” he said. “In that way, we are asking them to step into the pain. It’s easier said than done, and it’s really challenging.”

The point is to show the client they confronted the moment and got through it. A distraction like a funny video or throwing themselves into an activity can also help, he added. “Once they are ready for the next step, they can use some of the other skills to influence the emotions that are underneath the urge and begin to think differently about it.”

 

Support Systems

The pandemic looked like it was going to subside this past spring as warm weather arrived and many people were getting vaccinated, but then the Delta variant reared its head, and vaccine levels plateaued. While that created frustration for everyone, it was particularly hard on people with pre-existing conditions related to anxiety and depression.

Dan Millman runs a program

Dan Millman runs a program that helps people take control of self-destructive tendencies.

Navarro said the confusion of starting to feel safe, and then, suddenly, not so safe, can lead to hopelessness, a huge risk factor in suicidal tendencies. A person who feels hopeless will often make vague statements such as “I can’t do this anymore,” “I don’t want to be here,” and “this is too hard,” she noted.

“I talk with people about what they can and cannot control. Though we can’t control events outside, we can control ourselves and our responses to those events.”

During the pandemic, social media can either help people feel more connected or lead to more hopelessness. Hichborn noted that, while it’s good to see friends and loved ones from across the country, social media also creates misleading impressions. The people smiling in the photo look happy, but they might be feeling lots of stress in their lives.

“The effect of social media is counterintuitive because it makes us feel more connected upfront, but in the long run makes us feel a lot more depressed and isolated,” she said.

Two other groups emotionally affected by the pandemic are very young children and seniors. Hichborn said she sees clients from ages 3 to 77. When a parent with young children dies, it can create a suicide risk.

“The child has a concept of mom or dad dying, and they want to see them again,” Hichborn said. “The child might feel like they have to die in order to see their mom or dad.”

Older people who are at risk of suicide tend to show warning signs such as saying goodbye to people, giving away their prized possessions, and cleaning out their house. When family members see this type of behavior, it’s important to talk with the person.

“If you see any suicidal ideations or any warning signs within a family member, don’t beat around the bush — ask them directly, ‘are you feeling suicidal? Are you having thoughts of harming yourself?’” she said.

If they’re not having those thoughts, Hichborn added, the question will not encourage people to start thinking about it. “It doesn’t work that way.”

In addition to asking direct questions, Burgess suggested active listening and being supportive.

“Sometimes the most important thing to do is listen and acknowledge the person’s experience,” she said. “They don’t need you to fix it, they just want to be heard.”

Hichborn recommends a safety plan displayed on the refrigerator to help a person who might struggle with suicidal thoughts.

“The plan can have support people to call and emergency numbers like the police, suicide hotline, or poison control,” she explained. “Everything is written out in a place that’s easily seen, so when someone isn’t thinking straight and their thoughts are all over the place, they don’t have to think about what to do — it’s right there.”

 

Stay Connected

Though we might feel alone in our thoughts, Burgess encouraged people to reach out to those they are comfortable with to talk about their feelings.

“What’s profound about the pandemic is that it’s a collective experience everyone is going through,” she said — and one that no one should have to confront alone.

Health Care Special Coverage

An Anxious Transition

While the economic reopening is being called the ‘new normal,’ things aren’t back to normal, really — at least not by pre-pandemic standards. With COVID-19 still lingering, developments like the loosing of mask and gathering rules and a growing call for employees to return to the office have only ratcheted up the stress and anxiety among a broad swath of the population. In other words, for many, returning to the world as they knew it will be a gradual process.

By Mark Morris

In these unique times when COVID-19 is still active but in decline, we all have lots of questions about how to navigate daily life.

For example, if you have been vaccinated, should you continue to wear a mask? Why does the CDC say you can go without a mask, yet many public places still require one?
Should we still socially distance and sanitize in certain situations?

And, importantly, how much anxiety are such questions causing these days?

Answers can come from many places. Lauren Favorite, assistant program director with Behavioral Health Network, noted that, while information can be good, an overload of messages from different sources results in confusion.

“When we are bombarded with a plethora of information, it’s difficult for people to make a singular choice that will be the right one for them,” Favorite said. “Too much conflicting information can create anxiety.”

“Because so many people are not sure what to do, they will hold on to behaviors even when they no longer serve their intended purpose.”

BusinessWest spoke with several behavioral-health professionals who said much of the stress people are feeling right now is rooted in their concerns about how safe it is to go back into the world. Despite the May 29 reopening of Massachusetts, allowing everything from restaurants to sports arenas to fully welcome the public, Alane Burgess, clinic director for MHA’s BestLife program, said many people still do not feel safe going to the supermarket.

Alane Burgess

Alane Burgess says it’s always easier to learn how to be afraid than to unlearn that mindset.

“It’s always easier to learn how to be afraid than it is to be unafraid,” Burgess said. “Even when we’re told everything is OK, people still have questions.” As COVID-19 is a relatively new virus and scientists are still learning about it, continued concerns about personal safety are not surprising.

A recent research article looked at the trauma experienced by refugees after they emerged from a war-torn country. Favorite said their experience serves as a metaphor for these times.

“In the war zone, they had to develop certain habits and routines as a way to survive,” she said. “Once they escaped and reached a safe place, they held on to those behaviors because they didn’t know how else to act.”

All behaviors have a motivation, she continued, and the ones we followed to stay safe during the pandemic served us well. As we move beyond the pandemic, however, it’s time to examine if those behaviors are still serving us.

“Because so many people are not sure what to do, they will hold on to behaviors even when they no longer serve their intended purpose,” Favorite said. “I think many people will be in a sort of in-between place until we start to see a critical mass of vaccinations.”

 

Baby Steps

For many, entering back into the world needs to be a gradual process. Kathryn Mulcahy, clinic director for Outpatient Behavioral Health Services at the Center for Human Development, encourages her clients to start small.

“Instead of trying to do everything at once, I remind people it’s OK to take baby steps,” Mulcahy said. “You might not be ready to go out to the movies, but you can start getting back into the world by taking a walk in your neighborhood.”

As an incentive to go out again, Burgess advises her clients to make a bucket list of activities they are excited about doing again. “Making a list reminds people of what brought them joy before COVID and can help motivate them to get back to doing those things again.”

lauren favorite

Lauren Favorite

“I think many people will be in a sort of in-between place until we start to see a critical mass of vaccinations.”

COVID also had a significant impact on the nature of work. Depending on the occupation, some people reported to work every day during the pandemic, while others followed a more hybrid approach of working at home some days and at the office other days. A third group has been working from home since last March.

Employers have begun asking Joy Brock, director of the CONCERN Employee Assistance Program, how to proceed as we move toward the end of the COVID era.

“Companies are struggling with how to translate all the different mandates,” Brock said. “They are having as much anxiety as their employees.”

According to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Fair Labor Division, employers are allowed to ask if an employee has been vaccinated. In some cases, they can require vaccination in order to report to work. Exceptions are allowed for those protected by legal rights, such as individuals who have disabilities or those with sincerely held religious beliefs.

Brock said even those distinctions beg more questions. “What if I’m vaccinated, but the person next to me isn’t? How is that going to work with masks, social distancing, and other considerations?”

When there is no clear-cut direction, individuals usually figure out how to keep themselves safe. Brock said even modest steps to take control over one’s health can help reduce anxiety. “If that means you are the only one in the office wearing a mask, that’s perfectly fine.”

Finding a comfort level at work and in the world ultimately depends on the individual. Burgess emphasized that everyone is on their own journey, and it’s OK to move at a different pace than others.

“I advise people to be patient with themselves and not make any self-judgments just because their comfort level is different than their friends or co-workers,” she said.

One clear demand Brock has heard from workers involves flexibility in work schedules.

“For the most part, people have enjoyed working from home because it makes child care easier to manage, they have been able to match or exceed their productivity, and many report lower stress levels,” she said.

With that in mind, many employers are looking at a hybrid model and trying to figure out the right mix between working at the office and from home.

Kathryn Mulcahy

Kathryn Mulcahy

“Instead of trying to do everything at once, I remind people it’s OK to take baby steps. You might not be ready to go out to the movies, but you can start getting back into the world by taking a walk in your neighborhood.”

A return to the office also means remembering how to be a colleague. Even if co-workers talk remotely every day, Mulcahy said people can get out of the habit of face-to-face conversations.

“As silly as it sounds, practicing an in-person conversation with someone outside your bubble is one more way to prevent that overwhelming feeling of being thrown back into the workplace,” she explained.

Beyond water-cooler discussions, Burgess said a successful transition back to the office also requires companies to be tuned in to the apprehensions their employees may have. “It will be important for people to have an open dialogue with their employers about any anxieties or concerns they may be feeling.”

Added Favorite, “as a supervisor in the workplace, I’m having conversations with my staff to assuage their fears about coming back on site.”

 

Talk About It

One key to putting COVID behind us is recognizing what everyone has gone through since last March.

“For the past 14 months, we’ve lived in a world full of trauma,” Burgess said. “The idea that we can suddenly go back to the way everything was is an impossible task.”

Mulcahy said she has heard from people who are embarrassed because they feel stressed and anxious about returning to a more normal life.

“They feel like they should be happy and excited that people are vaccinated, but instead they just feel worried,” she noted. “I want people to know they are not alone and they can reach out for help to navigate these feelings; that’s why we’re here.”

Burgess also pointed out that life was different during the pandemic, and we should accept that we are not the same people we were before.

“Our life has changed, and we have changed in some of the ways we think, how we feel, and what feels safe,” she said. “It’s important to respect who we are today because that, too, is part of the process in getting back into the world.”

When everyone was forced to suddenly deal with a pandemic, it created anxiety for many. Now, as the pandemic (hopefully) nears its end, that creates anxiety, too. Those who spoke with BusinessWest agree that talking about this stress, and letting people know their feelings are valid, will go a long way to easing everyone’s anxiety.

After all, Favorite said, “we’re still learning how to be in a world where we don’t have to worry all the time.”

Health Care

Disrupting the Cycle

 

The past year has been a difficult one in many ways, Dr. Alisha Moreland-Capula said.

“It’s been a tough time with COVID. We’ve had a lot of uncertainly, a lot of loss, and we’ve also had a rise in racial tension and a disruption in the relationship between law enforcement and the community,” the psychiatrist and author of Training for Change noted.

But when addressing an issue like urban violence, what many people — even those working to solve the problem — often don’t understand is the impact of fear. Not occasional fear, but long-term, lived-in fear.

“If you can imagine a life that is completely consumed and shaped by fear, then it is not absolutely outside the realm of possibility to understand how toxic that can be on someone’s life,” Moreland-Capula said.

The occasion for her words was the keynote address of a virtual forum last month hosted by Roca, an organization that aims to disrupt incarceration, poverty, and racism by engaging young adults, police, and systems that impact urban violence.

Fear can be a positive, she noted, when it heightens one’s senses in order to escape a dangerous situation or seek help.

However, “being afraid is meaningful until it’s not,” she said — when it’s a constant presence in a young person’s life, due to stressors like racism, poverty, and violence. That’s why Roca aims to tackle the issue of violence by addressing the causes of other traumas first — engaging not only with young people, but with the systems that impact them, from education to law enforcement to child welfare.

Gov. Charlie Baker

Gov. Charlie Baker

“Roca has been a relentless force in disrupting incarceration, poverty, and racism by engaging young adults, law enforcement, and systems at the center of urban violence and relationships to address trauma, find hope, and drive change.”

“We know from brain science that the external environment around us impacts who we are and who we become,” Moreland-Capula explained. “What Roca says is that we have to work with those environments, change the systems, and help to change the trajectory of the young adults we seek to serve.”

Mike Davis, vice president of Public Safety and chief of Police at Northeastern University, as well as a Roca board member, understands that concept.

“We have before us a moral imperative to be better as individuals and collective members of society,” he told forum attendees, adding that, too often, people lose hope because change hasn’t happened fast enough or, worse, believe working for change is someone else’s responsibility.

“Both of these thoughts are not only wrong, but but if they serve as the guidance for our behavior, they will guarantee failure,” Davis went on. “Substantive change is everyone’s responsibility, without exception. What needs to animate our actions now is a sense of urgency based on a vision for what is possible.”

Roca has such a vision, he explained, based on the premise that all people have intrinsic value and potential to contribute something unique to their society — and has not only helped steered young people away from prison and toward better outcomes, but also worked with police to see their roles differently.

“The loss of life to homicide or prison not only not only impacts that individual, that community, or that city, it impacts all of our society,” Davis said. “Loss of life is loss of possibility.”

In a brief address to the forum, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker noted that “Roca has been a relentless force in disrupting incarceration, poverty, and racism by engaging young adults, law enforcement, and systems at the center of urban violence and relationships to address trauma, find hope, and drive change. I’ve seen firsthand that Roca and its programming works.”

 

Fear Factors

Fortunately, Moreland-Capula said, Roca has been ahead of the curve in paying attention to the relationship between root traumas and their societal impact.

“They understand that, for whole communities to heal, for people to heal, there has to be keen attention paid to specific things like community violence, like trauma.”

Some of the chronic fear she mentioned earlier stems from a lack of basic needs, from food and water to shelter, safety, even love and belonging. By helping young people access education and employment, those cycles can be broken as well, she noted. “We know there are complex and structural challenges that require a complex and structural approach.”

Molly Baldwin, Roca’s founder and CEO, said the proliferation of drugs, violence, and guns in communities requires innovative approaches.

“Our old methods won’t work. Incarceration is expensive and a failure. Jobs and GED programs are not enough, and even the most credible messenger cannot convince a young person to do differently if that young person is living in a state of fight or flight and cannot access the thinking part of their brain for healthy decision making,” she said. “If we don’t address the impact of lived trauma, we can’t hope for healing and change.”

That philosophy is behind the recent establishment of the Roca Impact Institute, which works with communities and institutions that have a clear commitment to addressing violence by working with young people who are at the center of local incidents and trends.

Molly Baldwin

Molly Baldwin

“Even the most credible messenger cannot convince a young person to do differently if that young person is living in a state of fight or flight and cannot access the thinking part of their brain for healthy decision making.”

Unlike a typical training approach, the Roca Impact Institute is an intensive coaching approach that works with police departments, criminal-justice agencies, and community-based programs in sustained, collaborative partnerships over a 12- to 24-month period. Experienced Roca leaders engage these partners to learn new, trauma-informed strategies and apply them in their local context.

The idea, Baldwin said, is to change together. “If we hope for change for young people, we must change, too.”

At the virtual forum, Baldwin presented Roca’s James E. Mahoney Award to Peter Forbes, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (DYS), which has implented some of the concepts Roca promotes. Back in the 1990s, he noted, juvenile justice was in a different place, using terms like ‘predator’ and ‘offender,’ and concepts like boot camps and scared-straight programs.

But those thing didn’t work, he said, instead generating poor outcomes for individuals and communities. “Since that time, our work at DYS has evolved. We’ve embraced the principle that young people can make positive change in their lives, that we as an agency can be part of that change, and that our investment in youth development actually contributes to community safety.”

He cited national studies demonstrating that therapeutic approaches to justice-involved youth drive lower recidivism than punishment strategies. “If we run a coercive system, we actually run the risk of young people being worse off for their contact with the system.”

It starts, Forbes said, with meeting young people where they are. “People who work with adolescents see disrespect, non-responsiveness, impulsivity, defiance — behaviors that are typical of adolescents. Those are not descriptors of juvenile delinquency; that’s typical adolescent behavior. So it’s really important, as adults working with young people, that we respond to the behavior, but not overreact.”

 

New Beginnings

The event featured a brief address by former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, who has been an ardent gun-control advocate following her assassination attempt in 2011. Her message struck a different, more activist tone than the rest of the program.

“These are scary times — racism, sexism, lies, coronavirus. It’s time to stand up for what’s right. It’s time for courage,” she said. “We must do something to stop gun violence and protect our children, our future … to make our country a safer place, a better place.”

It will be a better place, Baldwin said, through the kind of relationship building, mutual understanding, and personal accountability that lie at the heart of Roca.

“We are humbled and honored to work with the young people at the center of urban violence — those who are traumatized, full of distrust, and trapped in a cycle of violence and poverty that traditional youth programs alone can’t break,” she said. “Today is a celebration of those who make this work possible, from young people to Roca teams and our partners committed to sparking new thinking about working with young people who are traumatized and stuck.”

Getting unstuck is a decision, she noted, offering a George Bernard Shaw quote: “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

Roca is doing its part to create change, Baldwin said, but it can’t achieve its goals alone. “There is an opportunity for all of us to begin again.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care Special Coverage

Youth in Crisis

Let’s face it — the past year of COVID-19 has probably been tough on you, in any number of ways that weigh on your peace of mind. But what about your kids? How are they doing? And … do you even know? That might seem like a flip or aggressive question, but a group of local teenagers who have been talking to public-health leaders about the issue say their parents aren’t fully hearing them when it comes to the impact of the pandemic. And that impact, in many cases, has been worrisome.

 

Alane Burgess began by stating the obvious.

“It’s not normal for kids to be home all the time.”

As clinic director of the BestLife Emotional Health & Wellness Center, a program of MHA Inc., Burgess is one of many healthcare professionals keenly invested in how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted young people. And the picture is worrisome.

“They like to be out. They like to socialize. Most kids like to be with friends,” she said. “COVID forced isolation on a lot of people; they haven’t been able to go to school, to socialize, to be involved with activities they once loved, like sports. Community spaces haven’t been open.”

It’s not surprising, she added, that this isolation has contributed to an uptick in anxiety, depression, frustration, and a tendency to act out in negative ways.

Indeed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between April and October 2020, hospital emergency departments saw a rise in the share of total visits from childen for mental-health needs. Nationwide numbers on suicide deaths in 2020 are still unclear, but anecdotal evidence suggests an uptick.

“Kids are excited to go back and see their friends and have some sense of structure, to be in society again. But there are definitely a lot of adjustments to be made.”

But here’s the less obvious reality, Burgess noted: while the pandemic may be (and that’s may be) on its last legs and schools and other gathering places are slowly opening back up, that doesn’t mean the stresses of the past year will just fade away.

“Kids are excited to go back and see their friends and have some sense of structure, to be in society again,” she told BusinessWest. “But there are definitely a lot of adjustments to be made.”

When COVID struck, she noted, the shifts were quick and unplanned — kids were suddenly learning at home, and many of their parents were suddenly working there. It has been a challenging time, particularly for working parents with young children who need help with school.

But transitioning back to whatever will pass for the new normal poses its own challenges, she said. “It was originally going to be two weeks, and weeks turned into months, and months became a year. Now, they’re going back out into a world that’s changed; it’s not going to be the same — there will be masks and social distancing and limitations on clubs and activities.”

Tamera Crenshaw says barriers to accessing mental healthcare are myriad.

Tamera Crenshaw says barriers to accessing mental healthcare are myriad.

Socially, certain young people — those with a more introverted personality — found they thrived in the remote setting, and are anxious about returning to campus, Burgess added. Others found the home setting to be an escape from bullying, and are palpably fearful about going back.

Meanwhile, some students, depending on how rigorous their remote-learning experience was, might find themselves overwhelmed or feeling academically behind as teachers play catch-up. Many students report coasting to passing grades, even very good grades, while feeling they haven’t been learning much.

And the economic struggles affecting many families who lost income or jobs — a definite stressor on kids — certainly aren’t over.

Tamera Crenshaw, a clinical psychologist and founder of Tools for Success Counseling in Longmeadow, said she’s especially passionate about mental health in minority populations, a demographic disproportionately affected by mental-health issues — because, again, those issues tend to be exacerbated by factors like economic stress, which have also landed hard on those populations during COVID-19.

Even remote learning has been a greater problem for communities of color because of issues of technological access and family strife over financial matters, she added. “Home isn’t necessarily the most conducive learning environment — and COVID just exacerbated it.”

An uptick in suicidal ideation is especially concerning, Crenshaw said. “Someone can have a baseline of thought, but when kids are actually expressing a plan or intent, it’s scary. And we’re definitely seeing an increase.”

Some of the factors are typical stressors on teens in any given year, but despondency has certainly been driven by greater economic instability, which can raise tension and anxiety in the home, as well as two competing factors: a longing to end a year of isolation and get back to school, and health fears about the safety of doing so, especially for kids who know someone who has died of COVID.

“These kids have not been forgotten, but even with a vaccine, they’re going to be vaccinated last,” she noted. “I can’t imagine there’s not a fear of going back into the school environment when they haven’t been vaccinated.”

The issues are deep and complex, and solutions aren’t easy. But, like most others in the mental-health field, Crenshaw says the first step to helping young people take charge of mental-health issues is clear and simple.

“You’ve got to name it.”

 

Start the Conversation

That means breaking through societal stigma surrounding these struggles.

“My mission is to destigmatize mental health,” Crenshaw said, noting that several factors contribute to that stigma and the resulting reluctance to seek help. “I want to help debunk that stigma.”

Beyond attitudes toward mental health, another barrier is financial — the challenge of accessing insurance that will pay for treatment, or, for those who don’t have it, navigating out-of-pocket costs while already struggling economically, she added.

“It was originally going to be two weeks, and weeks turned into months, and months became a year. Now, they’re going back out into a world that’s changed; it’s not going to be the same — there will be masks and social distancing and limitations on clubs and activities.”

A third factor is religious belief, specifically a belief by some churchgoers that mental-health professionals are at odds with faith, or that faith makes such help unnecessary. “We’re trying to educate churches and knock down that barrier,” she said. “I’m a woman of faith myself.”

Another factor is the simple fact of how few therapists of color are working today. Crenshaw’s team is largely women of color, but her practice is an exception — which is unfortunate because she knows people of color will often have an easier time trusting someone right off the bat when they can relate to them or see themselves in them.

This last factor might be a long-term struggle to overcome, she added, noting that she teaches classes in her field at Westfield State University, and none of the 17 students currently in one of her classes is a woman of color.

In fact, the mental-health and social-work fields in general are in need of more talent, said Jessica Collins, executive director of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts (PHIWM). She agreed about the access issue as well, noting that mental health should be a basic support, not something available only for people who can pay for it — especially when families who can’t pay are often in greater need of those supports.

Recognizing the importance of these issues among young people, before the pandemic even began, the Public Health Institute facilitated the formation of a youth mental-health coalition in Springfield — one that brings to the table direct service providers like BHN and Gándara, Springfield Public Schools, local therapists, and, critically, a group of 11 teenagers who meet regularly.

The question at the center of the initiative is simple, Collins said. “How do we best support kids? It might sound basic, but it’s fairly new; there has not been an emphasis on the mental health of kids except in extreme cases, where the kids have to go into inpatient care.”

One takeaway so far is that teens don’t feel fully heard by the distracted adults in their lives.

“What we’re hearing, loud and clear, from our young people is, when they talk to adults, adults are not skilled at supporting them,” Collins said. “Adults are stressed, adults are stretched, and that just adds to this epidemic of young people feeling hopeless and alone and unsupported.”

That’s why the Public Health Institute is talking about what kind of training adults — those who work in preschool and school programs, but also parents — might need to learn how to better listen to young people and work through and respond to what they’re hearing.

Jessica Collins

Jessica Collins says parents sometimes get so stressed, they don’t realize how stressed their kids are, too.

“These big direct-service providers are really competitive, so to get them in a room to talk about how can we work together to better support families, instead of just competing for them, that’s fairly new,” Collins said, adding that Daniel Warwick, Springfield’s superintendent of Schools, has also been on board with efforts like this for a long time.

For example, when he saw a 2017 report by PHIWM about the hopelessness felt by local teens who don’t identify as heterosexual, “he was so upset about that, a few years ago, he mandated some training for all Springfield public-school adults to better support kids who are LGBTQ+.”

 

Take It Seriously

That’s a good example of listening to young people and then taking them seriously — which is one way to normalize mental-health needs, Collins said. “If you can’t talk about it, you can’t figure out for yourself what you need.”

And one thing young people need right now is reconnection. While many kids are tired of the technology-only avenues for connecting with friends, Crenshaw said, Zoom calls, text chats, and the like have been an overall positive in staying in touch. But she also encourages kids and families to take opportunities to see friends and loved ones in person, in a safe manner, when possible.

“You can go to the park; you can go outside with a soccer ball, wear your mask, and connect. Some families have said, ‘we can’t do this alone,’ and became part of each other’s bubble, taking turns doing homeschooling. We encourage these ways of connecting with each other.”

And don’t give up on trying to talk to your kids, Burgess said, even when they don’t feel like talking back.

“The most important thing any parent can do during these times is open a dialogue with their children and allow kids to have open communication,” she said. “What are they thinking? What are they feeling? Then we can guide them and help them through their own resiliency and make adjustments.”

Families can help combat their kids’ isolation, she said, by planning quality family time, even if it’s just having dinner together, around the table, every night, or scheduling a family game night every week. Those moments, she noted, can naturally help kids let their guards down.

“You want to have that quality time, that open communication to talk and listen to your kids and ask, ‘how are you feeling? What’s going on? What can I do to help make things easier?’ Sometimes, as a parent, we’re not able to say ‘yes’ to everything, but we can look for compromises and help kids make some of the decisions.”

The problem in identifying signs of distress, Crenshaw said, is that teenagers, even on their best days, often prefer to be isolated, or present a sullen demeanor. So how can parents separate normal teen ‘attitude’ from real warning signs?

“Are they communicating as much with you, or are they isolating in their rooms moreso than normal? Are they eating normally?” she asked. “Even prior to COVID, parents would say, ‘I didn’t know there was a problem — I thought that’s how kids are.’”

It doesn’t hurt for parents to simply ask their kids, directly, how they’re feeling, what’s working or not working in their lives, how school is going, and if they’re feeling more anxiety than usual. “If a teen is isolated in their room, that could be typical teen behavior, but maybe not.”

Physical signs may be visible, too, Crenshaw said, noting that cutting — what’s referred to in her field as ‘self-injurious behavior’ — and eating disorders are more common than some parents think.

But more often, the signs are subtler. “It’s just really knowing their disposition and what they’re involved in.”

Burgess said it’s important for parents not to go it alone if their gut tells them something is truly wrong.

“If you notice your kid struggling with severe signs of depression — really isolating, really struggling — definitely seek professional help. If your kid is talking about suicide or even just having a hard time getting back into interacting or adjusting, seeking professional help is always key.”

In the end, coming out on the other side mentally healthy — and that goes for parents and children alike — will take patience and resilience, Burgess added.

“There’s no guidebook for this. There’s no ‘COVID for Dummies’ book. We’re all doing the best we can to adapt. We’re all just going through an unprecedented time.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

Mental Block

The health anxieties, economic stresses, substance abuse, and feelings of isolation exacerbated by COVID-19 aren’t exactly new, Dr. Barry Sarvet says. And they won’t fade when the pandemic does.

“Prior to the pandemic — and it’s easy to forget this now — we had an enormous amount of stress in our communities related to poverty, homelessness, economic struggles … people just facing an enormous amount of stress in their lives,” said the chair of Psychiatry at Baystate Health. “We had underemployment, unemployment, an opioid epidemic. It’s a very distressed community with a lot of long-term struggles, a lot of psychosocial stress. Every psychiatric disorder is influenced by environmental stresses, and those aren’t getting better. We need to pay more attention to them after the pandemic.”

Well before COVID-19, Sarvet noted, the region’s mental-health needs laid bare a shortage of inpatient beds for patients who need more help than outpatient visits can provide. It’s why Baystate announced a joint venture with Kindred Behavioral Health last summer to build and operate a $43 million behavioral-health hospital for the region, set to open in 2022. The hospital will be located on the former Holyoke Geriatric Authority site on Lower Westfield Road in Holyoke.

Dr. Barry Sarvet

“Every psychiatric disorder is influenced by environmental stresses, and those aren’t getting better.”

Holyoke Medical Center (HMC) had revealed a similar proposal in March 2020 to build a $40.6 million, 84-bed behavioral-health facility on its campus. But when Baystate’s plans came online, and the threatened closure of 74 inpatient beds at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital were saved by a change in ownership, HMC reverted to an earlier plan, to repurpose two of its existing units for behavioral health.

“We were concerned about providing a solution to get beds online as the state was developing guidelines for all hospitals to incentivize an increase in behavioral-health beds,” said Spiros Hatiras, president and CEO of HMC and Valley Health Systems.

The process of converting two units to behavioral health — an adult unit and one with a likely geriatric focus — began in October and will be finished by late April, and will add 34 new beds to the existing 20 at the hospital, more than doubling the total to 54. In doing so, it provides a more immediate solution to regional bed shortages, avoiding the need for a lengthy construction period (HMC’s new hospital was also expected to open in late 2022).

The internal repurposing of units had been conceived as a stopgap measure, but when Trinity Health announced the sale of Providence to Health Partners New England (HPNE), which committed to keeping inpatient beds open — and Baystate moved forward with its project — the stopgap made sense as a longer-term solution, although HMC could revisit a standalone behavioral-health hospital at some point in the future, Hatiras said.

Baystate’s project, meanwhile, will include 150 beds — 120 of them part of the original plan. The system has also contracted with the state Department of Mental Health to operate a 30-bed, long-term continuing-care unit for chronically mentally ill people who need a longer time in the hospital to stabilize before returning to the community, Sarvet explained.

This state-funded program, not accessible to regular referrals, was launched after the closures of Northampton State Hospital and other facilities like it. “Some patients need longer-term care, and this offers a length of stay to support people who don’t benefit from short-term hospitalization,” Sarvet said, adding that the DMH unit will be physically connected to the new hospital, but offer its own unique resources.

“New beds will be needed over the long term,” he said, speaking of the project as a whole. “We have had quite a shortage for many years, prior to the potential closure of Providence and prior to the pandemic. This substantial increase in needs is reflected in emergency-room visits from patients with a mental-health crisis. And we certainly see evidence that this isn’t a short-term blip, but part of a longer-term trend that predated the pandemic.”

 

Multiple Pivots

The prospect of any additional behavioral-health beds in the region is certainly a turnaround from a year ago, when Trinity Health announced it would close 74 inpatient beds at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital.

However, two months ago, the health system sold Providence to HPNE, which provided some management services at the facility from 2011 to 2014, and will operate the facility under the name MiraVista Behavioral Health. In doing so, it will resume operations of numerous outpatient programs, as well as including up to 84 inpatient psychiatric beds.

Spiros Hatiras

Spiros Hatiras

“We were concerned about providing a solution to get beds online as the state was developing guidelines for all hospitals to incentivize an increase in behavioral-health beds.”

“At the time we put forth the plan to build a new behavioral-health hospital, everyone else had pretty much abandoned any behavioral-health expansion,” Hatiras told BusinessWest. “People were shrinking programs; Providence was closing down their campus, and Baystate had put their plans on hold indefinitely. We decided we needed to do something to service the region. Since then, Baystate resurrected their plan to develop the old Geriatric Authority site.”

The recent moves come as no surprise at a time when state health officials have been incentivizing hospitals to open up behavioral-health beds in the wake of a sharp increase in cases due partly to the pandemic.

However, “we had a concern that what seemed like no beds could potentally become too many beds,” Hatiras explained. He disagrees with Marylou Sudders, secretary of Health and Human Services for the Commonwealth, who has said there can never be too many beds because the state has so many needs. Rather, he noted, “demand may be greater now than it will be a year from now as we move away from the pandemic spike; we might see demand go down.”

Two other factors, both geographic, also played into the decision to scale down HMC’s behavioral-health expansion. One is that HMC, Baystate, and Providence would have been providing around 225 beds within a three-mile radius of each other, and though the need for services is great statewide, there’s only so far patients and families will be willing or able to go to seek access to treatment — not to mention the difficulty of recruiting more physicians, nurses, and ancillary staff to such a concentrated area.

“We might find ourselves very quickly in a situation where we might not be able to staff those beds. Can we attract staff to this area? That’s always been difficult for Western Mass.,” Hatiras said, another reason why a smaller-scale project makes sense right now.

“I’m optimistic about the units we’re building coming online quickly and providing some relief,” he said. “It’s a good project, and we have a good track record in behavioral health. We know we can run it well, and the state has been very enthusiastic about it. I think we’re in really good shape.”

While the standalone hospital proposal is ‘parked’ for the moment, not abandoned completely, HMC has to be sure something of that scale would be both necessary and practical before moving forward, Hatiras added. “We’re a small community hospital. A project can’t be something that may or may not succeed financially; we can’t take a $45 million risk.”

Baystate currently has 69 behavioral-health beds at three of its affiliate locations: 27 at Baystate Wing Hospital, 22 at Baystate Franklin Medical Center, and 20 at Baystate Noble Hospital. When the new facility opens next fall, these three locations will close. A fourth location, the Adult Psychiatric Treatment Unit at Baystate Medical Center (BMC), which accommodates up to 28 medically complex behavioral-health patients, will remain open. Kindred Healthcare will manage the day-to-day operations of the behavioral hospital.

Sarvet firmly believes Baystate will able to fully staff the new venture.

“We do have a nursing shortage, so this will present a challenge, but I don’t think it’s insurmountable,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ll work very hard to include people from the region and hire locally, but we might need a wider net to bring people in. We are very confident we’ll be able to be successful.”

 

Not Waiting Around

In fact, all the local players in the inpatient realm of behavioral health need to be successful, Sarvet noted. For example, suicide rates are increasing, as are instances of anxiety and depression, including in young people (see story on page 4). Meanwhile, the workforce of psychotherapists and clinicians in outpatient settings haven’t been operating at full capacity — again, partly due to the pandemic and the shift to remote treatment settings.

Like HMC, Baystate isn’t waiting for a new building to expand certain aspects of behavioral care. It will open a 12-bed child unit at Baystate later this month, which will expand to a 24-bed unit in the new hospital next year, in response to a shortage of beds specifically for that population. “We see a large number of kids taken care of on medical floors, waiting for beds, up to several weeks,” Sarvet said.

All this movement is positive, Hatiras noted, though he does wish that leadership from HMC, Baystate, and Providence had engaged in deeper conversations about the region’s long-term behavioral-health needs and how to meet them before the recent rush of project launches and changes, bed closings, and ownership transitions.

“Let’s talk as a regional team and determine what makes sense for the region,” he said. “That still has purpose now. Let’s decide what makes sense in these areas before we build 250 beds and can’t staff them, or half of them sit empty.”

For his part, Sarvet agrees that the meeting the region’s inpatient behavioral-health needs is not a solo effort. “We don’t want to win the battle; we want all hospitals to be staffed. We’re in a friendly competition, and we want everyone to win.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

The Next Step

By Mark Morris

 

Jack Jury

Jack Jury says today’s joint-replacement patients experience less pain and a shorter rehab than in the past.

As we age, it’s not unusual for our joints to become worn down from decades of use. For most people, their knees, hips, or shoulders will develop painful arthritis and need some kind of attention.

When a patient suffers from especially severe joint pain, doctors usually begin treatment by recommending physical therapy, as well as pain medications or an assistive device such as a cane or a walker. When these non-operative approaches work, they can provide relief and delay an eventual surgery.

However, “if the pain, function, and quality of life do not improve for the patient, that’s when we recommend joint-replacement surgery,” said Dr. Ben Snyder, an orthopedic surgeon at Cooley Dickinson Health Care.

Nearly 1 million Americans undergo joint-replacement surgery every year, with around 600,000 for knees and 300,000 for hips. According to Snyder, this safe and effective surgery is proliferating because, as people age, they want to remain active through their later years.

In the past, surgeries were often held off until patients were in their 70s because older-model replacement joints would not hold up for more than 10 or 15 years. “But improvements in joint-replacement techniques and technology have increased the longevity of joint-replacement surgery,” Snyder said. “Because of that, we’ve seen a big increase in patients who are 55 to 65 years old.”

A key to success for joint-replacement surgery involves getting patients out of bed and walking on the same day of surgery, Snyder noted. “We find that mobilizing patients early promotes faster recovery, less pain, and fewer complications.”

Andrea Noel-Doubleday, assistant director of Rehabilitation Services at Cooley Dickinson, has been a physical therapist for 25 years. In that time, she said, helping patients with their rehab has improved greatly because it has become a much less painful process for the patient.

Dr. Ben Snyder

Dr. Ben Snyder

“We find that mobilizing patients early promotes faster recovery, less pain, and fewer complications.”

“Joint-replacement surgeries have evolved and become so good that we just guide patients through their exercises,” she said. “For most patients, there isn’t the high level of pain in a rehab like there used to be.”

Less pain also translates to a shorter rehab process. Jack Jury, lead physical therapist at the Rehabilitation Hospital at Mercy Medical Center, said a full knee replacement for many patients is a day-stay surgery.

“They come in in the morning, have their knee replaced, work with us for couple sessions of physical therapy, and then go home the same day,” he explained.

While home exercises and outpatient rehabilitation remain essential, he noted, even they are taking less time. “A few years ago, it was not unusual for our patients to see us for 12 weeks of outpatient therapy. Now, four to five weeks is a long time to work with someone.”

 

Transition Game

Both Jury and Noel-Doubleday pointed out that rehabilitation hospitals play a key role in the healing process for patients who are not yet ready to move from the hospital directly to their home.

Those patients see people like Nick Rizas, inpatient therapy manager with Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Western Massachusetts. Rizas explained that patients are usually referred to Encompass because they have chronic conditions (such as obesity, diabetes, and active tobacco use) that make healing more challenging. He also works with patients when they decide to have both knees replaced at the same time.

“When a person is in pain because their knees are giving them trouble, getting both done means they only have to go through the process once,” he said, quickly adding that “this procedure would only happen after a discussion with the surgeon to determine that this is the best course of action.”

Andrea Noel-Doubleday speaks with a joint-replacement patient.

Andrea Noel-Doubleday speaks with a joint-replacement patient.

On occasion, physical therapy plays a role before surgery when doctors recommend patients for a program known as ‘prehab.’ Noel-Doubleday explained that prehab allows patients to increase their strength and become familiar with the exercises they will need to perform to properly heal after surgery.

“It can be hard to go through the exercises when you aren’t feeling great, but it’s worth it,” she said. “By being stronger before the surgery, patients can get back to their normal activity sooner.”

When Rizas does prehab work to help patients build strength in their leg or hip before surgery, he said, “it gives them a running head start on their rehab program.”

Healthy muscles around the joint play an important role in protecting it as well, he added, noting that the hips have a deep socket with lots of muscle surrounding them, while the shoulders have less muscle mass protecting them.

“By being stronger before the surgery, patients can get back to their normal activity sooner.”

“The shoulder socket is more like a golf ball on a tee; it’s much more delicate,” Rizas said. “We have to be more careful when treating a shoulder because the muscles surrounding it aren’t as big as in the hips and legs.”

If a patient needs prehab but has trouble walking, therapists now have the AlterG, an anti-gravity treadmill that supports a person’s weight so they can exercise and build their strength prior to surgery. Noel-Doubleday said the treadmill also helps after surgery.

“If a patient is having difficulty getting their normal walking pattern back, the anti-gravity treadmill helps them get more comfortable and confident with their walking and with their movements before their full body weight is on the joint,” she explained, noting that equipment like this was not available even 10 years ago.

 

 

Playing Catch-up

One year ago, when COVID-19 infection rates began to overwhelm hospitals, joint replacements, along with other elective surgeries, came to a halt. Elective surgeries have since resumed, and doctors continue to catch up with what Snyder described as “innumerable joint-replacement surgeries” that were put on hold due to the pandemic.

One sign that joint-replacement procedures are back in business, Jury noted, was the recent addition of two new orthopedic surgeons at Mercy Medical Center.

The joint-replacement rehab areas have all beefed up their screening process as well as implemented all the necessary safety protocols to continue to see patients, Noel-Doubleday said. “COVID changed our routine, but it hasn’t stopped us from doing our jobs. We might work with patients in a different space or alter things slightly, but overall, we’ve made the necessary adjustments.”

As the world starts to emerge from pandemic times, many people are concerned about the “COVID 15,” a popular expression for the weight gained as a result of less activity during a year of being stuck inside. Maintaining a proper weight provides many health benefits, and lessening the wear and tear on the joints is one of them. Physical therapists say it’s a simple matter of biomechanics: the more weight we carry, the more stress we put on our joints.

Snyder recently authored a whitepaper on treating knee arthritis and discussed the relationship between weight and our joints. In the data he cited, for every pound a person loses, the force on the knees is reduced by five to 10 pounds.

Physical therapist Steve Markey

Physical therapist Steve Markey works with a patient on the AlterG anti-gravity treadmill.

Jury said carrying too much weight over time can also throw off structural alignments in the body, which exacerbates the stress on the joints. “We haven’t yet seen the impact from recent weight gains during COVID, and it will probably be years from now until we do.”

When joint-replacement surgery is necessary, Noel-Doubleday makes it a goal to educate patients before the procedure so they know what is involved. Jury makes sure his patients understand what he termed as “a couple important things” to know about joint replacement.

“First, it’s not an easy rehab, by any means,” he said. “But if the patient puts in the effort at physical-therapy appointments and, more importantly, at home with their independent program, they will most likely have a successful outcome.”

He noted that the success rate based on standard outcomes is much better today than it was even five years ago. In turn, most joint-replacement rehab patients these days expect to resume their activities at high levels after surgery. “If you look at walking, the goal is more than comfortably getting around, it’s being able to take a three-mile walk for exercise every day like they’ve done in the past.”

Noel-Doubleday said identifying specific activities patients want to return to is a change from past rehabilitation practices.

“For example, many patients want to resume playing golf or tennis, so we structure the rehab to help them do that again,” she said. “It’s been interesting to see how rehab has evolved like this, and it’s a lot of fun to be a part of it.”

Coronavirus Health Care Special Coverage

Forward Thinking

A rundown of the big issues facing healthcare 20 years ago would, in some ways, be similar to the same list today, encompassing persistent challenges like hospital finances, staffing shortages in certain specialties, strategies to tackle substance abuse, and diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Yet, the solutions to those issues have certainly evolved. For example, hospitals have seen a dramatic shift to accountable care, a model in which disparate providers work together and are paid for patient outcomes, not how many procedures they order up. And patients are increasingly active participants in their own care, as are senior-living residents and their families.

Technology has exploded as well over the past two decades, from robotic and minimally invasive surgery to increasingly targeted cancer treatments and rapid advances in prosthetics — not to mention the IT revolution, and the shift to electronic health records, patient portals, and, of course, everyone’s favorite pandemic-driven technology, telemedicine, which, most doctors agree, will continue to play a key role post-COVID-19.

Education has expanded as well. Stroke survival rates are higher these days, partly because people better understand the signs, and so are cancer survival rates, with the public more aware of the importance of screening. In fact, one huge story over the past 20 years has been the rise of preventive wellness and patient education — and keeping people out of the hospital as much as possible.

So, yes, many decades-old concerns of patients remain key concerns in 2020 (along with that whole pandemic thing that has dominated this unusual year). But the way we tackle those issues — with new ideas, new technology, and new facilities — is dramatically different.

To better paint that picture, we asked area health leaders what the next 20 years might hold in the areas of hospital administration, behavioral health, cancer care, and health education. On the following pages are their intriguing perspectives.

What’s Next for Hospitals

What’s Next in Behavioral Health

What’s Next in Cancer Care

What’s Next in Health Education


Health Care

What’s Next for Hospitals

By Spiros Hatiras

The year is 2020, in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, and the subject is the U.S. healthcare system — more specifically, the average U.S. hospital. Is it alive and well, or is it ailing?

I will argue that all is not well with our healthcare system, and that the average U.S. hospital is facing tremendous challenges now and for the foreseeable future.

It is important to establish that, while the healthcare-delivery model has been shifting to less hospital-centric models, the acute-care hospital remains solidly in the center of our delivery system and, in my opinion, will continue to do so. Any notion of a more decentralized model with less emphasis on hospitals has been pushed many years into the future, in part as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the accelerated growth of telemedicine during the pandemic, the need for hospital bed capacity, specialized equipment, and personnel — including the ability to ‘surge’ when needed — has all but ensured that the trend toward a smaller hospital footprint will slow down if not entirely reverse.

Shouldn’t that be good news for the future of hospitals? Well, not quite. While we may have a new appreciation for the need of readily available inpatient hospital care, we have also not solved any of the problems that hospitals have been facing for many years. In fact, the pandemic laid bare one of the most fundamental problems facing the industry, especially for smaller community hospitals. At the very onset of the pandemic, it was immediately clear that many hospitals, suffering from years of underfunding, faced immediate financial threat and would not be able to survive without a financial bailout, while private insurance companies reported record profits.

“I will argue that all is not well with our healthcare system, and that the average U.S. hospital is facing tremendous challenges now and for the foreseeable future.”

Why is this the case in a country where healthcare demands the highest per-capita expenditure of all developed countries? According to a study published in January 2019 by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the U.S. topped the ranking of healthcare spending among developed countries in 2016 at $9,982 per capita per year, a figure that is more than double the median of $4,033.

The reason for this disconnect is that most of that money is spent not on actual care, but on administrative costs. A recent study by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services found that, of the $3.5 trillion spent on healthcare in 2017, 33%, or $1.1 trillion, was paid to hospitals. Unfortunately, a significant portion of that money covered unnecessary costs to process bills and get paid by insurance companies, meaning the total spent on actual hospital care was far less. The same is also true for doctors’ offices.

In a study published in 2017 in Annals of Internal Medicine, Steffie Woolhandler and David Himmelstiein noted that the administrative cost of our healthcare system was estimated to be $1.1 trillion, of which the vast majority is excess and unnecessary spending. We are spending vast sums of money on a deliberately confusing and complex insurance system.

Trying to navigate the onerous billing requirements, denied-claims management, pre-authorization requirements, and a host of other administrative hurdles unique to the U.S. healthcare system is wasteful and frustrating to hospitals, doctors, and patients alike. We spend more money administering the system than we spend on care. This should alarm each and every one of us and prompt us to look a little more carefully at proposals for a single-payer system.

It is time to ignore private insurers who portray a single-payer system as the boogeyman, or the end of healthcare as we know it, and recognize their argument for what it really is: a reluctance to part with huge profits being made from a broken system at the expense of our health.

 

Spiros Hatiras is president and CEO of Holyoke Medical Center.

Health Care

What’s Next in Health Education

By Marie Meckel, Kathleen Menard, Susan McDiarmid, and Theresa Riethle

Despite the complexities that COVID-19 has brought to healthcare education, the trajectory from traditional models to hybrid or virtual experiences was inevitable. Today’s technology allows healthcare educators to transcend geography, which widens access to health education in all segments of the population despite location, economic status, and race. The pandemic also revealed the vulnerabilities of underrepresented minorities.

These challenges caused many educators to pause to re-evaluate and readapt to how we teach and develop medical curriculum. Incorporating technology through virtual learning experiences while focusing on how social determinants of health impact patient care and outcomes are two areas of focus in the future of healthcare education.

Health programs can integrate in-person and remote simulation experiences; these include the traditional simulation lab consisting of realistic mannequins where learners can develop clinical skills in a safe setting without patient harm. Additional virtual experiences include a wide array of interactive patient-encounter portals where learners can conduct histories, perform physical examinations, order and interpret diagnostic tests, develop assessments and treatment plans, all while documenting patient records and receiving coaching and feedback every step of the way.

“By incorporating technology into healthcare education, medical learners will be better prepared for clinical practice.”

Live rounding with certified medical providers has also enabled learners to experience traditional hospital rounding from wherever they are in an interactive manner. Even surgical experiences can be supplemented with high-definition surgical videos and medical lectures from subject-matter experts.

While none of these experiences will replace the need for traditional hands-on learning, they can provide learners with unique education experiences that directly correlate to what is seen in clinical practice. With the increase in telehealth visits, medical learners are now equipped to adapt to these visits, delivering care in a better and more effective manner.

Technology is intertwined into healthcare today as seen with diagnostic imaging, robotic surgery, and electronic health records. By incorporating technology into healthcare education, medical learners will be better prepared for clinical practice. The virtual experiences will also develop independent and critical thinking, thus making it easier to adapt to innovations and changing patterns of illness and health systems.

In order to provide equitable, high-quality healthcare to all patients, we must include social determinants of health in the curriculum. These include socioeconomic status, education, neighborhood and physical environment, employment, and social-support networks, as well as access to healthcare.

This charge became more evident with the pandemic, as we have seen its profound impact on underrepresented minorities. It would be a disservice to future providers to ignore the current healthcare disparities in these populations. Addressing these determinants is not only important for improving overall health, but also for reducing health disparities that are often rooted in social and economic disadvantages.

Healthcare providers of the future will not necessarily be those who have a traditional classroom education, but will be those who know how to use, implement, and apply technology in healthcare systems and provide high-quality healthcare to all patients.

 

Marie Meckel, MS, MPH, MMSc, PA-C; Kathleen Menard, MS, PA-C; Susan McDiarmid, MS, PA-C; and Theresa Riethle, MS, PA-C are physician assistant faculty members at Bay Path University.

Health Care

What’s Next in Cancer Care

By John Sheldon, M.D.

Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the U.S., but we continue to make significant advances in reducing its toll.

John Sheldon

John Sheldon

Key developments have included targeted drug therapies resulting from genomic profiling of tumor samples, which determines the molecular ‘fingerprint’ of the tumor; immunotherapy, which allows the body’s own natural immune system to better attack tumors; more sophisticated radiation-delivery technologies, which allow for more precise targeting of tumors and better sparing of adjacent normal tissues from radiation dose; and newer combination or ‘multi-modality’ treatment regimens, taking advantage of a combination benefit effect of different ways of attacking and killing tumor cells.

In lung-cancer treatment, for example, we now have drugs to target a variety of specific mutations that may be present, such as EGFR, ALK, ROS1, MET, RET, BRAF, or NTRK. Immunotherapy has been shown to provide a survival improvement in both stage-3 and stage-4 lung cancer. For earlier and smaller lung cancers, highly targeted radiation treatment can be delivered in a short regimen of just three to five sessions, as an alternative to surgery for patients who are not good surgical candidates. And for other patients, combination regimens of radiotherapy and chemotherapy followed by immunotherapy may be the preferred approach.

Even newer types of drugs are now available called antibody-drug conjugates, or ADCs, which target with high affinity a particular protein expressed on the surface of tumor cells, attach to the target, and then deliver a toxic payload to kill those particular tumor cells. This type of treatment was just approved by the FDA in April for metastatic ‘triple-negative’ breast cancer (a more aggressive type of breast cancer), and another drug in this category was approved last December for locally advanced or metastatic bladder cancer.

Molecularly targeted radiation delivery is another category of treatment that is advancing. Also known as peptide-receptor radiotherapy (PRRT), it consists of a radioactive particle, or radionuclide, linked to a protein, and this protein seeks out and targets its intended receptor, which is overexpressed on certain tumor cells. Once the protein-receptor binding takes place, the radionuclide is internalized into the tumor cell — and destroys the tumor cell. This treatment is currently being utilized for neuroendocrine tumors of the abdomen (the type of cancer that afflicted both Steve Jobs and Aretha Franklin), and it is being investigated for the treatment of metastatic prostate cancer.

Quality of life is an ongoing focus of cancer care, and while we always aim to increase survival, we simultaneously aim to optimize quality of life for patients under our care. In the realm of radiation treatment, shorter course regimens are more frequently being used (supported by evidence from clinical trials) in order to increase convenience for patients. Such regimens are now commonly used in the treatment of breast cancer, for early-stage lung cancer (as mentioned above), for some brain-tumor patients, and for some patients with prostate cancer. For the latter, radioactive seed implants into the prostate gland may be an option for a one-visit outpatient treatment.

In short, we continue to push forward strongly in the treatment of a broad range of cancers.

 

Dr. John Sheldon is medical director, Radiation Oncology at the Mass General Cancer Center at Cooley Dickinson Hospital.

Health Care

What’s Next in Behavioral Health

By Barry Sarvet, M.D.

As a science-fiction fan, I would love to be able to travel in time to see into the future of psychiatry. But, of course, the future isn’t really knowable and depends in large part on the choices we make. A more useful and realistic approach is for us to envision a possible future based on our awareness of the most urgent needs in the field, and to assume linear progress from the current state of our scientific knowledge and discovery.

Barry Sarvet

Barry Sarvet

In my opinion, the two most compelling needs within the field of psychiatry are the need for more effective, safe, and reliable treatments for the subset of psychiatric patients who don’t respond optimally to current treatments, and the need to make psychiatric care more accessible and equitable for everyone who suffers from mental-health conditions.

Depression is one of the most common psychiatric illnesses, affecting 7.1% of all adults and 13.3% of adolescents in the U.S. Severe depression is a potentially deadly illness, and suicide is a leading cause of death in this country. Although we already have a host of effective treatments for depression, between 10% and 30% of patients do not respond favorably to treatment. However, ongoing advances in our understanding of the neurobiology of mental illnesses in recent years have led to a number of novel biological treatments for treatment-resistant depression and other psychiatric conditions.

One recently developed treatment that has shown great promise with treatment-resistant depression is repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS). Available at Baystate, rTMS is a non-invasive procedure in which focused pulses of electromagnetic energy are applied to specific regions of the brain resulting in increases in blood flow and metabolic activity. rTMS belongs to a branch of psychiatric treatment referred to as psychiatric neuromodulation. We expect to see further development of this branch in coming years, particularly because of the encouraging observations of clinical effectiveness and safety of this type of treatment for patients whose conditions have not responded to conventional medications.

Other biological psychiatry advancements on the horizon include the development of medications targeting receptors for neurotransmitter systems (such as glutamate and NMDA) which have recently been implicated in the pathophysiology of depression and other psychiatric illnesses. We are also seeing a renaissance of research activity studying the use of so-called psychedelic drugs in combination with talk therapy to induce states of consciousness in which patients may find it easier to change well-worn patterns of thinking associated with psychiatric illnesses such as PTSD, anxiety, and depression.

Lastly, on the biological front, advances in the understanding of genetic variability in metabolism and responsiveness of the nervous system to psychiatric medications promise to usher in an era of personalized medicine in psychiatry, allowing psychiatric clinicians to select effective and tolerable medication treatments for patients without having to go through a trial-and-error process.

Even more important than advances in biological psychiatry is the need for progress in making psychiatric treatment more accessible to everyone who needs it. Currently, a majority of patients with mental illness do not receive any treatment at all, and for many more, treatment is delayed. In fact, many patients with untreated mental illness, disproportionately persons of color, end up in the criminal-justice system because of a lack of access to care.

In recent years, we have seen steady reduction in stigma surrounding mental illness and increased acknowledgment of the importance of mental health across society. Baystate’s recently announced plan for the development of a new, state-of-the-art psychiatric hospital facility for our region reflects the growing recognition of the importance of improving access to behavioral healthcare.

This new facility is just one component of a comprehensive strategy which needs to be executed in partnership with the whole community to improve access to all levels of mental healthcare and address persistent racial and socioeconomic disparities in access to care. Some of the components of this strategy includes work we have been doing at Baystate to embed mental-health services into our primary-care services. In addition, our development of new training programs for psychiatrists and child and adolescent psychiatrists have established a pipeline for enhancing the psychiatric workforce in our region.

We also will see continued use and improvement in telehealth models of psychiatric practice, which, of course, have dramatically grown in response to the pandemic, and have proven to be an important tool in reducing geographic barriers to access to care.

 

Dr. Barry Sarvet chairs the Department of Psychiatry at Baystate Health.

Health Care Special Coverage

Critical Condition

Guy DiStefano

Guy DiStefano says the non-urgent procedures that were shut down in March typically support the rest of what hospitals do, leading to major revenue shortfalls this spring.

Back in March, when COVID-19 was just starting to crest, hospitals took steps to brace for a potential surge of patients. But while COVID-19 surged, revenues slowed to a trickle.

“Early on, we realized we needed to build capacity for a surge of patients so we didn’t get overwhelmed like they did in New York City, so we shut things down early in March — which blew a hole in everybody’s finances,” said Mark Keroack, president and CEO of Baystate Health. “We’ve been gradually returning to prior operations. We always remained open, of course, but it was only a week or two ago that we resumed more elective kinds of cases.”

Many hospitals are doing the same, but the overall losses to the state’s hospital industry are, as Keroack put it, “staggering” — expected to total between $5 billion and $6 billion by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. “It’s a big stress test, if you will, for hospitals. And some have been hit more than others.”

All area hospitals have taken a financial blow.

“This has been very challenging, with the reduction in services,” said Guy DiStefano, vice president of Finance at Mercy Medical Center. “All our outpatient services — what are termed non-urgent cases, which usually help feed and support what a hospital does in its normal, day-to-day business — has been shorted, leaving us with a great revenue shortfall.”

At the same time, he added, “we still have all our expenses in place, just like any other business. Look at restaurants — the doors were closed, but they still had rent, utilities, all the other expenses, and the employees.”

Through May, Mercy saw a $25 million reduction in revenues due to pandemic-related reductions in services — and plummeting volume in the ER, a development that surprised hospital officials nationwide. At Mercy, daily Emergency Department cases dropped from a typical average of between 225 and 250 to around 100 to 120.

“Those slowly crept back up — we’re at 150 to 180 on a daily basis, so we’re not at full capacity, and there’s a lot of pent-up demand. Our business is coming back, but we lost a lot of revenues.”

“All our outpatient services — what are termed non-urgent cases, which usually help feed and support what a hospital does in its normal, day-to-day business — has been shorted, leaving us with a great revenue shortfall.”

Joanne Marqusee, president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital, said the hit has been significant. Through May, the facility recorded a loss of $18 million, partly due to COVID-related costs, but mostly because of lost volume. That number would be worse if not for $5.5 million in federal support.

“But that in no way covers our losses,” she added, noting that Cooley Dickinson Health Care could see a revenue shortfall of well above $30 million for the fiscal year ending on Sept. 30.

“We’re now planning for a fiscal-year 2021 budget and considering a number of measures to mitigate some of this — things like hiring freezes and reducing a lot of discretionary expenses. Everywhere we can hold off on spending, we have,” she went on, noting that service hours could be temporarily curtailed in some services, while employees making more than $26.50 per hour will forgo raises for the time being.

While that move shaves some costs while protecting lower-paid employees, it doesn’t make nearly enough of a dent, Marqusee noted. “So we’re looking at ways to further reduce expenses. But the work we’re doing already will certainly have an impact.”

DiStefano said Mercy has also had to take steps like furloughs and reducing hours to mitigate the losses. “We did everything we could to help employees keep their benefits in place. But employees are the number-one cost of a typical hospital — about 50% to 60% of the cost structure.”

Holyoke Medical Center has been losing roughly $6.5 million per month since services were curtailed back in March, President and CEO Spiros Hatiras said. But the community hospital did take some steps early on to gird against the damage.

“We were probably the first hospital in the area to furlough folks; we didn’t hold off because we saw it was absolutely important to be financially viable because we don’t have a parent company to spot us money,” he told BusinessWest, adding that many furloughed employees took advantage of the $600 federal boost in unemployment and wound up bringing in more than they did while working.

Joanne Marqusee says she hopes patient volume returns

Joanne Marqusee says she hopes patient volume returns not because of the revenue issue, but because patients shouldn’t forgo necessary care.

“That helped reduce expenses significantly,” he added, noting that almost 170 of 250 furloughed employees were back at the start of July, with another 80 to 90 expecting to return at month’s end. “Then MassHealth stepped in and allocated $11.8 million over four months to cover some of the losses, and we got a one-time payment from the feds of about $3 million. Add it all up, and through May, our losses were roughly $3 million — not insignificant, but we were able to survive it.”

Dollars and Sense

Baystate is surviving, too, Keroack said, emphasizing the importance the health system has not only on its 12,000 employees, but on the region, where it has an annual economic impact of some $4.2 billion.

When the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, he expects Baystate to have lost about $160 million in revenues due to volume losses, but the system was able to secure about $75 million in federal relief and another $23 million state aid.

“The rest of that will likely be covered by reserves,” he added, noting that Baystate is fortunate to have both reserve funds and a broad service model.

“The smaller hospitals that have cash-flow problems got hit very hard because they didn’t have much in the way of reserves, but the other group is bigger hospitals that are highly specialized, like Mass General, where their revenues really depend on that elective surgical volume. Hospitals that are jacks of all trades and have good size, like Baystate, were hit less hard. Not to say it was pleasant what we’ve been through.”

Calling a $160 million revenue loss a ‘less hard’ hit may speak in some ways to the financial clout of the healthcare industry as a whole; it’s certainly one of the Commonwealth’s key economic drivers. And as patient volume continues to ramp back up, hospitals will be on safer ground when it comes to budgeting.

“At Baystate Medical Center, we’re at 80% to 90% capacity, so I would say people are mostly back.” Keroack said, noting that, while patients are returning gradually for routine care and procedures, current volume is still affected by social-distancing and sanitization measures that have slowed the pace of treatment. “In the community hospitals, they’re a bit further behind — more like 60% of former volume.

“In the long run, the question is, will volumes be permanently depressed?” he went on. “We’ve tried to convince people you really don’t want to put off stuff you know is worthwhile — you don’t want to ignore symptoms that might be serious. We have seen a number of people lately whose illness is much more serious than it would have been in pre-COVID days.”

Cooley Dickinson Hospital’s Emergency Department has seen a 100% increase from its COVID lows, during the height of the pandemic locally, when it was handling 35 to 45 patients per day. Now, ED providers are seeing 70 to 80 patients per day, which is still about 20% below the organization’s typical ED volume.

“We are seeing people with chronic illness who have waited too long to seek medical attention and are sick,” Emergency Department Nurse Director Sara McKeown said. “We have also seen an uptick in people seeking mental healthcare; patients presenting with substance-use issues and trauma are also increasing.”

Patient volume is bouncing back at Holyoke Medical Center and its community-based practices, but ED visits still lag, Hatiras said. “Anecdotally, we’ve heard of people putting off heart conditions and other things, and that can lead to bad outcomes. People shouldn’t stay home with serious conditions.”

That said, “I don’t blame the government for being overly cautious with closing down elective surgeries,” he added, noting that the elimination of many procedures over the past two months was, more than anything else, about preserving beds to treat an unpredictable pandemic.

“We’re now planning for a fiscal-year 2021 budget and considering a number of measures to mitigate some of this — things like hiring freezes and reducing a lot of discretionary expenses. Everywhere we can hold off on spending, we have.”

Now that the infection rate is being effectively controlled, he explained, hospitals are trying to communicate the message that they are safe places to visit — with plenty of strict protocols in place, from masking to social distancing to constant sanitizing — for patients who need to be seen.

DiStefano said the challenge has been ramping services back up — and bringing back furloughed workers — to match what is proving to be pent-up demand, but in a measured way. “It’s a delicate balance — how do we do this to best serve the community?”

It’s a long road back from the volume lows of the spring, when physician revenue dropped by 50. They’re now back around 65%, and inpatient beds are at about 80% of capacity. But people with serious health concerns should not put off care, he stressed, especially since the hospital has been diligent about infection protocols and keeping COVID-suspected patients separated from the rest.

“We take great pains to keep this environment safe,” he said. “The message to the community is, ‘if you are hurt, if you have a condition, this is a safe place to come.’” It helps, he added, to be affiliated with a larger system, Trinity Health, and while Mercy has rarely seen the kind of financial deficit it faced this spring, its leaders are still doing what they can to meet community health needs.

“We are the fabric of the community; there are no concerns about Mercy’s future,” DiStefano told BusinessWest. “We are going to be here for many years to come. Fortunately, we have the backing of a larger organization, and that helps a lot.”

Distance Learning

If there is an upside to navigating the pandemic, he said it might be the growing importance of telehealth, which became not just a convenient tool for providers and patients over the past few months, but a critical one — and one that seems to be on track to be covered by insurance payers in the future much more consistently than before.

“This has become more of a platform that allows us to reach out to patients,” said DiStefano, whose background in telemedicine goes back to the 1990s. “I hope it’s a bigger part of healthcare going forward. Obviously, you have to do some testing in the office, but you can do preliminary or follow-up appointments with telehealth, and that reduces the volume of patients in the waiting room and the physical office, which allows us to have a much cleaner, COVID-free environment to keep those people safe.”

In short, it’s a way to boost volume — and revenues — while making patients who do go to the hospital feel more secure.

Hatiras agreed. “We had to switch on the fly to do more telehealth, but what we saw was care being delivered even more efficiently,” he said. “We saw no-show rates completely drop. So it’s an effective way to provide care, and there will certainly be more pressure on insurers to reimburse appropriately for telehealth.”

Indeed, Marqusee added, “what has been stopping us from doing more telehealth has been reimbursement; I hope we never go back to the days when we were so underpaid for telehealth. It has been a terrific model.”

In the meantime, she sees volume slowly returning to Cooley Dickinson — perhaps reaching 90% of a typical season come October. “But the reason we welcome those numbers is because people need to get care — it’s not because we need the volume. We know from national studies and anecdotally that people have been afraid, and they’re forgoing care, and that can really have health impacts for people.”

That’s why her facility, like the others BusinessWest spoke with, is not only maintaining strict protocols around infection control, but is communicating what it’s doing with the community.

“People have to believe that and feel confident. It’s really important that people don’t stay home in pain with issues that will just get worse. People aren’t coming with heart attacks, or appendicitis, or they power through a head injury, and it turns out they had a brain bleed. People need to come for care, and they should know this is a place they can come and feel comfortable.”

Not so comfortable, however, that they neglect the behaviors that have reduced infection rates in Western Mass. and allowed hospitals to increase their non-COVID-19 services.

“We’re in a good place; there isn’t a high level of COVID in our community. But that can change quickly,” Marqusee said. “I want people to always remember the reason we have low levels of COVID is because of the efforts everyone is making to social distance, wear masks, and practice hand hygiene. We shouldn’t take the reopening as a sign they we don’t need to do those things, but to do it even more. That allows us to provide needed care to all our communities.”

Keroack says he expects some patients to enthusiastically return to care providers, while others will be stragglers who need more convincing — while others will continue to embrace telehealth as the best option.

“We may not return to our former volumes until we have a vaccine and everyone feels totally comfortable,” he told BusinessWest. “I think it’s going to be a process.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

Improved State

Dr. Andrew Artenstein

Dr. Andrew Artenstein says the state’s slow, cautious reopening has effectively blocked some of the paths COVID-19 might take, thus slowing transmission of the disease.

In many respects, Dr. Andy Artenstein says, the COVID-19 virus acts like water in the home in that, if there are leaks, it can go where you don’t necessarily want it to go and cause major problems.

“Water will always find a path,” Artenstein, chief physician executive and chief academic officer at Baystate Health, told BusinessWest. “But if you block off all the paths, you have a chance; it’s the same with the virus.”

With that, he worked to explain why it is that Massachusetts, more than most of the other 50 states at this particular moment in time, is seeing the number of hospitalizations and deaths stemming from the virus decline sharply. In short, and in his view, the residents of the Commonwealth are essentially, and somewhat effectively, blocking off the paths the virus might take.

“We live in a society where there’s free mobility — that’s one of the things we love about our society. But it’s also one of the things that puts us at risk when there’s a transmissible agent rooted in this society,” he explained. “And this one is clearly here; it’s clearly transmitted in our community. It has not gone away; it’s just that, if viruses don’t get transmitted from person to person … if the virus has nowhere to go, it puts a wall from that root of transmission. You start to block off transmission paths.”

This was Artenstein’s way of explaining why, as one looks at a map of the country charting cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from the pandemic, Massachusetts is colored or tan or pink, while so many other states, especially in the South and Southwest, are dark shades of red, indicating they are hot spots.

Robert Roose, chief medical officer at Mercy Medical Center, gave essentially the same account.

“Massachusetts, along with a few of the other states here in New England, like Connecticut, New Hampshire, and a few others, seem to be solid, if not shining, examples of how a state encompassing multiple different communities can effectively slow down the rate of transmission of the coronavirus,” he said. “More than 40 other states are seeing significant increases in numbers of new infections, while here, over the past several weeks, we have not seen that increase; rather, we’ve seen a plateauing at a very low level.”

“Massachusetts and other states now doing well have been cautious in giving guidance to residents about limitations on travel and quarantining of individuals who have come from other states where there are increasing numbers of infections.”

He punctuated those comments with some statistics from his facility. Indeed, he noted that hospitalizations stemming from COVID-19, which numbered in the 50s daily on average in April, the height of the surge in this region, were down in the 20s in May, then the single digits in June. Starting in early July, there were several days when there were no hospitalizations.

Clearly, the state is doing something right, or several things right, when it comes to blocking paths for the virus, and we’ll get to those. But this begs a number of questions — especially, ‘is this sustainable?’

The quick answer, said Roose and Artenstein, is ‘yes.’ But there are a number of caveats, especially as more segments of the economy reopen in more cities, including Boston, and as the new school year is poised to begin. In their view, the Commonwealth has acted prudently in not opening too much of the economy too quickly. Staying that course is essential, they said, adding that it appears the state is committed to the slow, steady, and safe method.

Meanwhile, travel is another key factor in this equation, both people from this state traveling to others and people from other states coming here — actions that create paths for the virus, rather than block them.

“Massachusetts and other states now doing well have been cautious in giving guidance to residents about limitations on travel and quarantining of individuals who have come from other states where there are increasing numbers of infections,” Roose said. “To me, that is likely to be the most significant factor going forward, because of the rates of infection in other parts of the country; interstate travel represents one of our most significant risks in terms of keeping our rates of transmission is this local community low.”

Dr. Robert Roose

Dr. Robert Roose says caution regarding travel will be one of many factors that will determine if the Bay State can continue its pattern of falling hospitalizations as a result of the pandemic.

But the biggest factor might be fatigue.

“It’s exhausting — for all of us; I’m not just talking about the healthcare side, I’m talking about life,” said Artenstein. “There are certain things that you just miss having as social human beings. But the longer you can sort of wait this out and stretch this out, the better off we’ll be.”

In other words, people can’t relax or think for a moment that maybe it’s time to start talking about the pandemic in the past tense.

As they talked about the state’s current status as a … let’s call it a cold spot for the virus, both Roose and Artenstein praised the Commonwealth’s approach to reopening, which has been described by both those supporting and criticizing it as slow and careful.

Pain Threshold

Artenstein had another word for it.

“It’s painful, because we all want to get back to a sense of normalcy,” he explained. “It’s exhausting that you can’t do what you like to do the way you used to do it, and eventually we will be able to. But this approach has paid dividends; you get used to a little bit of a new normal, but you also know that you’re moving toward something.”

Roose agreed.

“What I think Gov. Baker and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services have done very well is be cautious, rely very clearly and directly on the key data points, and move slowly but consistently through a phased reopening,” he explained. “In other states, governors had moved much more quickly, and we’re seeing the effects of that now; in many states, they’re seeing such significant increases that they’re moving backward and rolling back some aspects of their reopenings.

“It’s not to say that this same type of thing couldn’t happen here,” he added quickly. “But relying consistently on key data and reinforcing consistently the important public-health and safety strategies that we know are effective in reducing transmission — that has not wavered, and I think that has sent a very consistent and strong message to residents to continue to wear masks, be cautious with increasing your social circle, practice hand hygiene, and quarantine when you’re sick.”

As a result of the slow reopening plan and diligence with things like mask wearing, contact tracing, social distancing, and testing, the Commonwealth has effectively moved past the first wave of the pandemic — while other states have clearly not, said those we spoke with. It is now in what Artenstein called a “window,” where, he said, residents must be diligent about not backsliding when it comes to mask wearing, hand washing, keeping one’s distance, and other preventive measures, while also preparing for the second wave that most say is almost certain to come in the fall or winter.

“That’s just historically what pandemics do,” he explained. “They don’t all do that, but statistics will tell you that there will be at least a second wave if not more waves.”

What will those waves be like? It’s difficult to say at this point, said Roose and Artenstein, adding that a number of factors will dictate the level of infections and how well the healthcare community can respond to the next surge.

But in the meantime, and while still in this window, the state’s residents and business owners alike must continue to stay the course, the experts said.

“We still could do better in terms of how often people wear masks in pubic and follow the public-health recommendations,” said Roose, adding that state leadership must continue to reinforce those messages. “We know that when we give those recommendations and that guidance and it’s clear and connected to science, it helps, and it’s certainly important to be consistent about it, or people will have less inclination to follow them.”

Meanwhile, as the state proceeds with phase 3 of its reopening plan and eyes phase 4, testing will be another critical key to closing off paths the virus might take.

“I believe strongly that adequate capacity and widespread testing are critical for us to continue to move forward into phase 4 and into a state where the community is engaging as fully as it can,” Roose said. “That allows us to ensure that, if we do identify infections, we can mitigate the spread; widespread testing is really critical, and we’re not yet where we need to be, as state and as a country. We still could be doing more, and I think the ways we do testing will continue to get easier and more readily available, and that will help quite a bit.”

Artenstein agreed, but quickly noted that all the steps people have been taking — and hopefully will continue to take — only serve to slow or inhibit the spread of the virus. The virus is still there, and it will remain there until a vaccine is developed.

“You can temporarily shut down or limit transmission,” he said, “and then you have the chance for other things to kick in, such as therapies and better approaches to diagnosis and treatment. Those things take time, but they can get a chance to take root once you’ve already established those public-health principles.

“It’s pretty obvious that limiting public gatherings and staying the course has helped,” he went on, returning to the thought that, however painful and exhausting the last few months have been, the strategy moving forward for the state and all its residents has to be to continue to wait it out and, as he said, “stretch it out.”

Bottom Line

Turning the clock back 100 years, to the so-called Spanish flu, Artenstein said the second wave of that pandemic was more severe than the first in many parts of the country simply because communities eased off on restrictions and returned to what life was like before it struck.

“A lot has changed in 100 years — science, technology, people, etc.,” he told BusinessWest. “But one thing that hasn’t changed that much, in my opinion, is behavior. We may be able to further mitigate any future surge, just as we mitigated this surge, by adhering to public-health guidelines. If we can keep that up, and then get some help with testing, better contract tracing, better therapies, which will happen, and maybe a vaccine…”

He didn’t completely finish the thought and instead stressed that this ‘if’ is a very large one, and there are really no certainties when it comes to this strategy.

But the very best strategy at the moment, he stressed, is to string this out and close off those pathways the virus can take.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

Life on the Front Lines

Dr. Andrew Artenstein

Dr. Andrew Artenstein, chief physician executive and chief academic officer for Baystate Health.
Photo courtesy of Baystate Health

Dr. Andrew Artenstein isn’t the first to notice the lack of cars on the roads, but he’s certainly among those most invested in those open roads.

“When I leave work, I’m used to traffic, and there’s no traffic,” said the chief physician executive and chief academic officer at Baystate Health. “Every day feels like Sunday out there. The streets are a lot quieter. Hospitals don’t have visitors, so the hallways are quieter.”

Fewer people out and about means the social-distancing movement has largely taken hold in Western Mass., meaning fewer transmissions of the novel coronavirus and fewer cases of COVID-19 than would be present if people weren’t staying home. The question is, how much difference will it make in the end?

“I can tell you that I don’t know the effect, but I do know anything will help,” Artenstein told BusinessWest. “It’s the right thing to do, and it will hopefully blunt the peak. It will not prevent it totally, but if you can blunt the peak, flatten the curve, we can possibly manage the surge.”

What that surge will represent wasn’t clear at press time, when the state had tallied close to 17,000 cases of COVID-19 — a number that may be much higher as you’re reading this.

Based on expert estimates, Gov. Charlie Baker said Thursday that coronavirus hospitalizations in the state will likely peak between April 10 and April 20, with the total estimate of coronavirus cases in the state ranging from 47,000 to 172,000 over the course of the epidemic, or about 0.7% to 2.5% of the population.

“It appears the community has done a really good job of generally heeding the recommendations from our national and state public-health experts, which is, if you’re not sick, don’t come to the hospital,” Artenstein went on. “People still need other types of care; people still have cardiac issues or lung issues or kidney issues. That’s not going to stop. But people who don’t need emergency or hospital-level care, for the most part, are finding care in other ways, which is what they’re being told to do. That keeps people from transmitting infection in hospitals, and keeps them away from other patients who might be sick.”

That means patient volume for non-urgent matters is indeed down at Baystate, with some of that work being moved to telephone or telehealth platforms (more on that later), as well as outpatient clinics and urgent-care centers, all of which are also trying to enforce social distancing as best they can.

What is on the rise in the emergency room are cases of respiratory illness, fevers, and coughs, with many of those being admitted and testing positive for coronavirus.

“It appears the community has done a really good job of generally heeding the recommendations from our national and state public-health experts, which is, if you’re not sick, don’t come to the hospital.”

“There’s clearly a lot of transmission going on in the community, which is exactly what you’d expect from a pandemic,” he said. “If you look at the data, the vast majority of people [with the virus] are not sick enough to need to go to the hospital, but they’re still infectious and potentially transmitting it if they’re not isolating themselves.”

Artenstein should know all about the effects of isolation on pandemics. He founded and directed the Center for Biodefense and Emerging Pathogens at Brown University for more than a decade before arriving at Baystate, so “I have a fair amount of experience with these things. But this is a unique experience … a 100-year event.”

It’s an event that has seen Mercy Medical Center, like Baystate, shift from a strategy prioritizing preventive wellness to one that focuses on readiness and the immediate response to coronavirus — and an expansion of capacity where possible, said Dr. Robert Roose, the hospital’s chief medical officer.

“At this point, we have been heavily focused on increasing our available beds and staffing to continue to respond to the needs of the community, and we have been seeing increasing numbers of patients infected with COVID — and the acuity of those cases continues to increase,” he told BusinessWest.

That increase in the number of patients requiring hospitalization reflects what Mercy’s leaders are tracking on a national level, and he expects the trend to increase over the coming weeks.

HCC Police Captain Dale Brown stacks boxes

HCC Police Captain Dale Brown stacks boxes of personal protection equipment for delivery to area hospitals.

“In regard to our local preparedness, we have a robust surge plan that identifies three different levels of escalation to increase our capacity to treat increasing numbers of patients,” he explained. “We’re also coordinating with other local and regional hospitals on a surge-capacity plan in the event we need to share resources among different hospitals in the region.”

Testing, Testing

What would help predict and manage the coming surge is a more robust array of testing resources, but local hospitals are still hampered by a limit on how much is available at the state level.

“At the present moment, we’re prioritizing testing patients who are symptomatic and in need of care in the Emergency Department, as well as healthcare workers and first responders,” Roose said. “We’re prioritizing those groups per the CDC, and as testing capacity increases, then we’ll be able to offer more testing as it becomes more readily available.”

Artenstein reported the same protocol for priority test groups: patients hospitalized with symptoms, employees showing symptoms, and some first responders who are symptomatic. “We know it’s not in our control; it’s a national issue, and we’ve been severely limited in our ability to test. It’s starting to improve because of a tremendous effort by people at Baystate and some of our government officials to help us get more testing and more capacity and more rapid turnaround time. We’re starting to see an improvement, but it’s still not where it needs to be.”

As for the coming surge, Baystate began preparing for that in a number of ways over the past few weeks, including the construction of a rapid-response triage facility just outside the entrance to the ER. It holds around 40 chairs — each of them six feet apart — for individuals entering the ER.

“There’s community transmission of the virus at this point,” said Dr. Niels Rathlev, chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine, when the project was announced last month. “And we really are preparing for more patients showing up for screening. This is not to expand testing; the real issue is to try to keep patients that don’t require admission to the hospital — acute emergency care — and screen them rapidly out here.”

Construction of the triage center is a step that mirrors what is happening in other parts of the country, Rathlev noted, adding that some areas, such as the state of Washington, established such centers weeks ago in anticipation of a surge in visits to the ER and the critical need to triage those coming in. Meanwhile, field hospitals are being created at sites like Worcester’s DCU Center and the Boston Convention and Exposition Center.

Capacity concerns also cross over into the realm of protective equipment like masks and gloves. Roose said Mercy is working aggressively with suppliers to make sure it has what it needs. “I will say we have supplies, but I don’t think any hospital around here feels particularly comfortable with the amount they have because there may be a large influx of patients at any time.”

It’s a problem that has required some creativity. Earlier this month, Patriots owner Robert Kraft sent a team plane to China to pick up 1.2 million N95 masks. In all, Kraft partnered with the state to purchase 1.4 million masks for Massachusetts, and purchased another 300,000 protective masks for New York.

Locally, institutions have stepped up enthusiastically to meet the need. Springfield Technical Community College’s (STCC) School of Health and Patient Simulation donated personal protective equipment — including surgical masks, isolation gowns, and exam gloves — to Baystate Medical Center, Mercy Medical Center, Holyoke Medical Center, and Cooley Dickinson Hospital, in addition to emergency medical services personnel in the West Springfield Fire Department.

“We recognize there is a critical need for personal protective equipment at hospitals and medical centers,” said Christopher Scott, dean of the School of Health and Patient Simulation at STCC. “By donating our supplies, we are doing what we can to protect the healthcare workers who are running short on masks and other protective equipment. The community needs to work together to ensure we defeat this pandemic.”

Holyoke Community College donated similar equipment from its health-science programs to area hospitals. HCC Police Captain Dale Brown spent a day last month conducting an inventory of collected supplies — including boxes of isolation gowns, exam gloves, masks, goggles, hand sanitizer, and microbial wipes — at the Campus Police station. A representative from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency picked everything up to coordinate delivery to area hospitals.

“At this point, we have been heavily focused on increasing our available beds and staffing to continue to respond to the needs of the community, and we have been seeing increasing numbers of patients infected with COVID — and the acuity of those cases continues to increase.”

Even Dakin Humane Society pitched in, donating its in-house supply of disposable surgical gowns and booties, along with other personal protective equipment, to Baystate.

“We’ve seen news stories about the need for protective equipment being faced by those in human healthcare, so we reached out to Baystate Medical Center because they’re local,” said Karina King, Dakin’s director of Operations. “We anticipated that human health workers would need these supplies soon, so we recently stopped using disposable items at Dakin and found alternative equipment, including smocks that could be laundered and re-used instead of being disposed of.”

A researcher from UMass Amherst contributed in a different way, with a dose of data. Richard Peltier, a professor in the university’s School of Public Health and Health Sciences, partnered with Dr. Brian Hollenbeck, chief of Infectious Disease at New England Baptist Hospital in Boston, to test in his lab whether used N95 facemasks were still effective at blocking infectious particles after sterilization. They determined that, yes, masks could be safely sterilized and reused.

“While these are ordinarily disposable protective devices for medical workers, these are not ordinary times,” Peltier said, “and this science shows that sterilized face masks will protect our healthcare providers who are working under extraordinary conditions.”

Across the Distance

In short, there’s a lot going on to both help hospitals prepare for the surge and to reduce non-critical traffic as much as possible. To that end, a number of institutions have stepped up their telehealth efforts, including Valley Health Systems, which includes Holyoke Medical Center, Holyoke Medical Group, and River Valley Counseling Center.

“We are expanding our capabilities to meet the needs of our patients, especially those with ongoing health concerns that need to be treated and in contact with their healthcare providers,” said Spiros Hatiras, president and CEO of HMC. “It is important for everyone to maintain their health and safety regarding pre-existing conditions, as much as it is to protect from COVID-19.”

Behavioral Health Network (BHN) introduced a new program, BHNTeleCare, that allows individuals to continue counseling sessions with their therapists from the safety of their own homes.

According to Katherine Wilson, president and CEO of BHN, “this innovation in the way we provide therapy and counseling services is groundbreaking and allows us to render services where people are. This is particularly critical as a result of the needs that have emerged due to the spread of COVID-19. It allows a counseling avenue for those suffering anxiety and in need of support during this time of crisis affecting individuals and families.”

Meanwhile, MHA also introduced its new TeleWell virtual service delivery, which allows mental-health clinicians and their clients make virtual connections using a smartphone, tablet, or computer.

“With social distancing now part of daily life, people who receive therapy for emotional support, or who would like to, may experience uncertainty when it comes to making and keeping office-based appointments,” said Sara Kendall, vice president of Clinical Operations for MHA. “TeleWell provides another option by enabling people to keep their appointments virtually. Every day, more BestLife clients are using this option.”

All these efforts — including simply staying at home to avoid transmission — are helping, Roose said.

“I cannot stress enough how important the efforts of the community are in ensuring that our healthcare providers and resources adequately meet the needs of this crisis,” he said. “Physical distancing, diligent hand washing, isolating and quarantines when appropriate — those are the efforts that will flatten the curve and lessen the impact of this disease, and ensure that our healthcare providers have what they need to provide the care the community needs.

Meanwhile, Mercy’s incident command center continues to keep in contact with the entire Trinity Health system every day. “And every single day, I stress the importance of efforts we can all take to impact this disease. It’s something we all have the power to impact if we take proper precautions and follow the guidelines around physical distancing and quarantines. I can’t stress that enough.”

Those community efforts don’t guarantee Massachusetts won’t become as strained as New York City, Artenstein said, but they help.

“My feeling is that April is going to be very challenging in Western Massachusetts, and after that, I don’t know,” he told BusinessWest. “It quite possibly could extend well into May. I don’t think we’ll be completely out of the woods, and I do think, if you look at epidemics and pandemics, there are second and third waves sometimes.”

For example, he explained, the Spanish flu of 1918 saw a second wave late that year, and an even worse third wave arrived the following spring. COVID-19 has the potential of following a similar track because it’s new, and people haven’t built up the blanket of underlying immunity that keeps seasonal flu, while dangerous as well, under control.

“With each passing day, it becomes clearer we’re living in an unprecedented time, and with that comes uncertainty,” Roose added. “As this pandemic evolves, we are all called upon to learn quickly, work collaboratively, and constantly change how we do things. This is a community crisis, and it takes involvement and the efforts and support of everyone in our community.”

Ready for the Surge

Roose emphasized that he greatly appreciates those efforts, not just in the community, but from the selfless healthcare workers on the front lines.

“I could not be more inspired and impressed by our teams of providers, clinicians, nurses, everyone showing a commitment to putting patients first and responding to the needs of the community,” he said. “In a crisis like this, people show their true character, and it’s clear to me we’re much stronger together, and our teams are rising to this challenge.”

Artenstein agreed.

“I’ve never seen a group of more dedicated, committed, and compassionate people than I’ve seen here,” he said. “They’re working hard in adverse conditions.”

At the same time, he added, “they’re nervous, scared for their familes, and scared for themselves — and they have the right to be scared. But our people are true to their mission to provide excellent, compassionate care.”

No matter what form the April surge may take.

“This is a very unique point in our history — one that, hopefully, we’ll look back on and not have to relive.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

A New Normal

By Mark Morris

Dr. S. Lowell Kahn

Dr. S. Lowell Kahn says he feels an obligation to the community to offer his services because it’s so difficult for people to get healthcare right now.

At a time when COVID-19 is dominating everyone’s attention and resources, people are still experiencing other urgent health issues such as heart attacks, strokes, and any number of other medical conditions that require treatment.

During the last few days of March, BusinessWest spoke with several area physicians about the challenges they are confronting in trying to serve the needs of their patients who require medical attention that is not related to the coronavirus.

The doctors BusinessWest spoke with have all reduced their normal business activity and only see patients for emergency or medically necessary reasons. They all said they closely follow the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), notices from Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, as well as information from their respective medical societies.

“It’s a challenging environment, to say the least,” said Dr. S. Lowell Kahn, president of New England Endovascular Center.

Kahn said he feels an obligation to the community to offer his services because it’s so difficult for people to get healthcare during these times. The procedures he is doing are non-elective, and in many cases essential for patients, as well as their doctors.

“People with cancer still need chemotherapy, and those with bad peripheral veins need a biopsy first,” he explained. “If we don’t provide that biopsy, the oncologist can’t properly treat them.”

Dr. Stephen Jacapraro, a dentist with Family Dental Care, is only opening his office when someone has a dental emergency. He said moving from reduced hours to closing up completely was a fast transition.

“We are filling a need because my patient doesn’t want go to the emergency room, and the ER staff doesn’t want him there at this time.”

“Back on March 16, the Massachusetts Dental Association recommended that we start limiting hours; then, on March 19th, the state became more stringent, and since then, we shut down completely except for emergencies,” said Jacapraro. “If someone has severe pain or swelling, I can diagnose it, but even in normal circumstances, I would refer the patient to the proper specialist, such as an endodontist or dental surgeon.”

Dr. Christopher Peteros, a podiatrist with New England Foot Specialists, is limiting his practice to seeing post-surgical patients who need follow-up attention, diabetics with foot issues, and others with medically urgent foot conditions.

“If I have a diabetic patient with an infection in his foot, I don’t want to send him to the emergency room at this time,” Peteros said, adding that there is less risk involved in taking care of the patient in his office than sending him to the hospital. “We are filling a need because my patient doesn’t want go to the emergency room, and the ER staff doesn’t want him there at this time.”

Not Business as Usual

Even fairly routine procedures that are usually done in a hospital setting have become more difficult due to hospitals preparing to be overwhelmed with coronavirus cases. Replacing a dialysis catheter for patients would normally be handled in a hospital, but Kahn has been doing them in his office.

“Even though this isn’t considered an emergency procedure, for dialysis patients, it really needs to get done,” he noted, adding that patients prefer to go to his office these days rather than risk exposure to COVID-19 at the hospital.

Dr. Christopher Peteros

Dr. Christopher Peteros is seeing patients with urgent issues for two reasons: because they need care right away, and to keep them out of hospitals.

All three doctors spoke of following the latest protocols for constantly wiping down their offices, as well as screening patients more carefully before they arrive. They all said that, if there is any reason to believe a patient has been exposed to the coronavirus, they are kept away from the office.

In the interest of social distancing, the doctors are spreading out appointment times to prevent more than one patient from being in the waiting room at any time. Kahn has taken it one step further, and offers patients the option of waiting in their car until they are ready to be seen.

“We used to let family members come in and sit with the patient in our recovery area after their procedure, said Kahn. “We don’t allow that anymore.”

The safety of their teams is an obvious priority for all three doctors as well. Kahn said all his staff wear masks the entire time they are in the office.

“We screen ourselves every single day using screening questions issued by the CDC,” Kahn said, noting that they go through the entire list of questions to check every staff member for a fever, cough, shortness of breath, etc.

“People are scared these days. It’s not fun being a healthcare worker like it was before,” he told BusinessWest.

Jacapraro said one of his concerns is that he and his staff are “toward the older, more vulnerable age group,” so one upside of seeing only emergency cases is that it limits his staff’s exposure to the public. He also mentioned that, with masks and gloves in such high demand, the limited hours allows him to conserve his supplies.

“We’ve been cohesive as a team, trying to keep each other healthy both physically and mentally. We’re staying strong through it to make sure we can stay open to help patients who need us.”

“Our suppliers are taking care of the hospitals first, as they should,” he said, adding that, even with limited supplies, he has enough in stock to handle emergencies.

With his primary supplier unavailable, Jacapraro has been using a secondary supplier for masks whose price is four times higher. Jacapraro doesn’t believe the supplier is jacking up the price, but that it’s more likely a cost difference between suppliers. “When you’re not making any money, however, you still have to pay them four times as much.”

Back in mid-March, the U.S. surgeon general asked doctors to stop all elective procedures, a move that has proven almost self-regulating as the doctors have said patients are more reluctant to seek services at this time.

“Some of my patients are asking me to push off appointments, and I’m asking the others to do so as well,” said Peteros.

Jacapraro added that, once social distancing was being encouraged, the Massachusetts Dental Assoc. recommended stopping all elective treatments. “Obviously, we have to get closer than six feet to help our patients.”

Some of the most common procedures are being seen in a different light in the environment of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Society of Interventional Radiology (SIR) issued a reminder to doctors about a basic procedure that Kahn had done many times in his office.

The procedure involves inserting a feeding tube through the skin and into the stomach. Before doing that, however, the doctor inserts a catheter into the patient’s nose, through the esophagus, and into the stomach to determine the best location for the feeding tube. When the catheter is being inserted into the patient’s nose, it is common for them to have a gag reflex. The SIR cautioned that the gag reflex could aerosolize the COVID-19 virus, and recommended that, unless the doctor and staff wear N95 masks and full headgear, they could potentially expose themselves to the virus.

“This has always been a quick and safe procedure, but we’ve had to rethink it,” Kahn said. “And for the time being, we have backed off on doing feeding tubes, per these recommendations.”

Carrying On

The doctors who spoke with BusinessWest have all based their COVID-19 protocols on information from the CDC, and they advise consumers do the same.

“There’s a lot of bad information out there on social media, where suddenly, everyone thinks they’re an epidemiologist,” said Kahn, adding that consumers should get their information from reliable sources.

Early on, as they understood the significance of the coronavirus, Kahn met with his staff to allow everyone to voice their concerns about practicing medicine at this time. By the end of the meeting, he noted, everyone was on board with how they needed to proceed.

“We’ve been cohesive as a team, trying to keep each other healthy both physically and mentally,” he said, while seemingly speaking for everyone in the industry. “We’re staying strong through it to make sure we can stay open to help patients who need us.”

Health Care

Back to Basics

By Ashley Tresoline

The World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 a pandemic. We are all trying to navigate through figuring out what is best for ourselves and our families in these uncertain times. As we all stock our homes with extra food, hand sanitizer, and the toilet paper we waited four hours for at the store, we need to be thinking about how we can keep ourselves healthy too: not just by preparing our homes, but by preparing our bodies as well. All of us are facing a new normal for the foreseeable future.

We need to refocus and go back to basics of everyday living to help us support our immune systems. Here are some tips to do just that.

Get enough sleep. I know your latest binge-worthy Netflix show is calling your name, but you still need to be trying to get seven to nine hours of sleep a night. When we are sleep-deprived, we are more likely to get sick. When we sleep, we make proteins called cytokines, which help regulate the immune system.

Stay hydrated. Drinking water seems so simple. Drinking plenty of water ensures that your blood will carry plenty of oxygen to all the cells of your body. This means all of your body’s systems will function properly, because they’ll be getting plenty of oxygen. Your immune system functions best when your muscles and organs are functioning best. If the taste of plain water is hard for you to stomach, add a little lemon, lime, or cucumber.

“Drinking plenty of water ensures that your blood will carry plenty of oxygen to all the cells of your body. This means all of your body’s systems will function properly, because they’ll be getting plenty of oxygen.”

Stay as active as possible. It is so easy to sit around more than we usually do because we are in our houses and don’t have many social activities. Make your workout a priority for your mental and physical health. There are so many gyms and studios that are offering online training and classes for you to do in your own living room. Being active will help you feel less stressed and help keep your immune system functioning in tip-top shape.

Eat your greens. Do you remember when your mom used to tell you to eat your broccoli because it would make you big and strong? Well, guess what? She was right. When you want to boost your body’s immune system, you can do it naturally by eating the most nutritious foods. Dark, leafy greens and cruciferous veggies are recommended by dietitians because these foods contain high levels of minerals, antioxidants, and vitamins. Broccoli is considered one of the most versatile vegetables to buy because you can consume it in a variety of ways, such as raw in salad, steamed, or sautéed.

Eat other foods that help with your immune system. These include citrus fruits such as oranges, limes, and lemons to help with vitamin C, ginger to protect against bacteria and inflammation, sweet potatoes, green and black tea for the amino acids, mushrooms rich in B vitamins and minerals, yogurt for the probiotics and vitamin D, spinach because of its vitamin C and iron, and turmeric for its anti-inflammatory properties and flavonoids to help fight off countless infections.

Avoid alcohol and processed sugar. I know these are difficult times and drinking in moderation in most cases is OK, but an increase in your alcohol intake can increase a person’s exposure to bacterial and viral infections. Processed sugar can weaken the immune system, and we all know we should limit our processed sugar on a normal basis. Realistically, we all will have a treat or two every now and then, but processed foods are nutrient-poor. When we eat a lot of sugar, the immune system is habitually deprived of nutrients. We need nutrient-dense food to help our immune system fight off colds and viruses.

Incorporate supplements and vitamins. A lot of us take a daily multi-vitamin, which is a good way for us to help get the recommended vitamins and minerals we need in our diet. There are many other supplements that claim they can help you boost your immunity but be careful, as they can load you up with vitamins and minerals your body can’t absorb. Loading up on some minerals and vitamins in large doses can cause you to have other health problems, such as nausea, vomiting, dizziness, kidney problems, headaches, and many more serious conditions, depending on your health situation.

There are a few natural cold supplements that aren’t all bad to add to your health regimen, such as elderberry syrup and zinc lozenges. Elderberry contains natural substances called flavonoids, which can help reduce swelling, fight inflammation, and boost immunity. Studies have shown elderberry can ease the symptoms of the flu, bacterial sinus infections, and bronchitis. The benefits seem to be most effective when started 24 to 48 hours after symptoms begin. (However, never consume a product made with raw elderberry.) Zinc lozenges can also help reduce cold and flu symptoms, but they come with the risk of overwhelming your body with too much zinc. If you take too much, you may be at risk for nausea, vomiting, stomach upset, copper deficiency, and risk of suppressing the immune system. Be sure to speak to a healthcare professional before adding any supplements to your healthcare regimen. Some supplements can react with prescription medications and over-the-counter medications you are taking.

Your body is working hard to keep you healthy. Help your body by eating right, getting proper sleep, staying hydrated, and keeping active. Health is a cumulative thing, so keep up your best health and wellness practices while we are in this difficult time — and, of course, wash your hands!

Ashley Tresoline is the founder of Bella Foodie, LLC; [email protected]

Health Care

Vision 2020

Few industries change as rapidly — and as dramatically — as the broad, multifaceted realm of healthcare. From oncologists’ use of cancer fingerprinting and gene therapy to facial transplants for accident victims; from cutting-edge protocols to save the lives of stroke and heart-surgery patients to a dizzying array of new treatments to improve vision … the list is seemingly endless, making it impossible to paint a full picture of where healthcare has come in the past decade.

But we at BusinessWest wanted to try anyway — and, at the same time, look ahead at what the next decade might bring. So, appropriately, here at the dawn of 2020, we invited a wide range of healthcare professionals to tell us what has been the most notable evolution in their field of practice in the past 10 years, and what they expect — or hope — will be the most significant development to come in the next decade.

The answers were candid, thoughtful, sometimes surprising, but mostly hopeful. Despite the many challenges healthcare faces in these times of advancing technology, growing cost concerns, and demographic shifts, the main thread is still innovation — smart people working on solutions that help more people access better care. After all, healthcare is, at its core, about improving people’s lives, even when they seek it out during their direst moments.

Innovation and promise. That’s what we believe a new decade will bring to all corners of the healthcare world — that is, if these leaders, and countless others like them, have anything to say about it.

Administration

Joanne Marqusee

President and CEO, Cooley Dickinson Health Care

Joanne Marqusee

The most significant recent development in healthcare administration has been a recognition of the role patients play in their own healthcare. “Crossing the Quality Chasm: A New Health System for the 21st Century,” published in 2001 by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, called for a massive redesign of the American healthcare system. Specifically, it provided “Six Aims for Improvement,” five of which focused on safety, effectiveness, timeliness, efficiency, and equity. Not talked about as much, the sixth aim was to make healthcare ‘patient-centered.’

While we still have a ways to go to truly be patient-centered, we have witnessed a sea change in the past decade in this regard. Patients are increasingly active participants in their care, questioning their doctors and other providers to ensure that they understand their options, using electronic medical records to engage in their care, and speaking out about what they want from treatment or forgoing treatment at the end of life. The best healthcare providers — both organizations and individuals — embrace these changes, welcoming patients as more than recipients of care, but rather active partners in their own care and decision making.

My hope for the most significant development over the next decade has to do with providing universal healthcare coverage while controlling healthcare costs. While we almost have universal coverage in Massachusetts, too much of the nation does not. A hotly debated topic, universal healthcare has many benefits, including increasing access to preventive and routine medical care, improving health outcomes, and decreasing health inequalities.

Surgical Technology

Dr. Nicholas Jabbour

Chairman, Department of Surgery, Baystate Medical Center

Dr. Nicholas Jabbour

The most significant development in surgery over the past decade has been the move toward less invasive surgical approaches made possible through advanced technology. These approaches include robotic and minimally invasive surgery, including intraluminal surgery in areas such as gastroenterology, cardiology, and neurosurgery — for exemple, the passage of an inflatable catheter along the channel inside of a blood vessel to enable the insertion of a heart valve instead of making a large opening in the chest. As a result, we have seen a big shift from inpatient to outpatient surgery with shorter hospital stays and improved post-op recovery.

In the next decade, we foresee these innovations in less invasive surgery will be enhanced by better computing and software integration. This interaction will include the merging of radiological and potentially pathological information — which is currently available in a digital format — with real-time visualization of anatomical structure during surgery. This will offer surgeons the opportunity to improve the accuracy and speed of a surgical procedure while minimizing the risks.

The next decade will also see major innovation in the area of transplantation with the development of tissues or whole organs through bio-engineering manipulation of animal or a patient’s own cells. The integration of this bio-engineering manipulation with currently available technology, such as 3D printing and 3D imaging, will provide patients with the needed tissue or organ — including valves, bone grafts, hernia mesh, skin, livers, and kidneys — in a timely manner. This development will revolutionize the field of transplantation and surgery in general.

Behavioral Health

Karin Jeffers

President & CEO, Clinical & Support Options Inc.

Karin Jeffers

Over the past 10 years, we’ve seen a growing adoption within the behavioral-health and medical fields of holistic treatment models. While the two disciplines were once treated as different animals, the entire health field is now moving to treat both the body and the mind — together. The next 10 years are likely to bring these two fields even closer.

Today, you’re seeing behavioral-health clinicians being hired into physical health practices. Likewise, physical health providers are cross-training to better understand behavioral issues. Whereas, a decade ago, a behavioral-health client might be assigned a therapist or a psychiatrist, they are now gaining access to more robust set of supports, including nursing, case management, recovery coaching, and peer support from those with lived experience. Government mandates and payment model changes are forcing outcomes-based integration, too. Pediatricians, for example, must now do behavioral-health screenings of all youth under 21. In the mental-health space, you’re seeing clinicians ask about weight, exercise, and other physical factors.

We’re seeing significant movement on both the state and federal levels to value outcomes over volume. It’s reflected in the criteria set by the Excellence in Mental Health Act for certified community behavioral-health clinics, a designation CSO has earned, and in the work we have done with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Our ability to tailor programs, like our grant-funded work at the Friends of the Homeless shelter in Springfield, has literally saved lives among those experiencing homelessness and co-occurring conditions, like substance-use disorders.

In the coming years, we hope to see integrated care models become even more mainstream. Things appear headed in the right direction, but government action establishing payment reform within the behavioral-health field needs to be taken — and the integrated models need to be appropriately funded. Such changes would affirm overall health and wellness to include both physical and behavioral health.

Weight Management

Dr. Yannis Raftopoulos

Director, Holyoke Medical Center Weight Management Program

Dr. Yannis Raftopoulos

Weight management is a rapidly evolving field, and I am fortunate to be part of it. One of the most significant innovations this field has experienced in the last 10 years was the development of a new gastric balloon. Packaged in a small capsule and swallowed with water, the Elipse balloon provides satiety while requiring no procedure or anesthesia for its placement and removal. Together with its excellent safety profile, the Elipse balloon is the least invasive and yet effective weight-loss modality available today. Elipse is manufactured in Massachusetts by Allurion Technologies.

I had the opportunity to be an investigator in the European trial which led to the Elipse market approval in the European Union in 2016. Recently, Holyoke Medical Center was among 10 U.S. sites in which an FDA-regulated trial was conducted. The trial was completed successfully, and Allurion has submitted data requesting FDA approval to market Elipse in the U.S. The balloon’s use in Europe shows that patients can lose more than one-fifth of their initial weight.

A New England Journal of Medicine study reported that 107.7 million children and 603.7 million adults, among 195 countries, were obese in 2015. High body-mass index accounted for 4 million deaths and contributed to 120 million disability-adjusted life-years. Obesity is a chronic disease, and its management requires long-term guidance and close patient-physician communication. Successful collaborations between existing best practices with technology innovations that will allow delivery of effective weight-management care on a massive and global scale could be the most significant evolution in the field in the next 10 years.

Cancer Care

Dr. Hong-Yiou Lin

Radiation Oncologist, Mercy Medical Center

Dr. Hong-Yiou Lin

The advent of new medical oncology drugs has improved control of microscopic and, to a lesser extent, macroscopic disease, allowing local treatments, such as surgery or radiotherapy, to increase survival. To cure cancer, we need to eliminate cancer cells where they started, as well as any microscopic cells traveling through the body. The idea of using immunotherapy to fight cancer has been around for decades, but bringing this idea to the clinic has been hampered by the cleverness of cancer cells knowing how to evade detection by our immune system. Recently FDA-approved immunotherapy either takes away that ‘invisibility cloak’ or wakes up our dormant immune cells to start fighting cancer.

The biggest development in oncology in the next 10 years will be personalized precision medicine, which allows the oncology team to tailor treatment to each patient’s unique cancer biology and life circumstances. Meanwhile, improvements in cancer diagnosis will come from novel PET radiotracers and new MRI sequences that allow for more accurate staging and identification of the best site to biopsy. Pathologists will use novel tools such as genome sequencing to supplement traditional microscopy to subclassify the specific type of cancer within a certain diagnosis instead of grouping into broad categories.

Surgical, medical, and radiation oncologists can then use the above information to decide on the best sequencing between surgery, systemic therapy, and radiotherapy to minimize side effects and maximize cure. Medical oncologists will be able to offer more drugs that target new mutations, overcome drug resistance, increase specificity to a mutation, or better fine-tune immunotherapy, targeting only cancer cells by enlisting gene modification as well as natural killer cells. Radiation oncologists will have new radiomic and genomic tools to personalize the radiation dose and volume, and when to offer radiotherapy.

In short, over the next 10 years, cancer care will continue to move away from the traditional one-size-fits-all model toward a more personalized approach.

Allergy and Immunology

Dr. Jonathan Bayuk

Medical Director, Allergy & Immunology Associates of New England

Dr. Jonathan Bayuk

There have been incredible and exciting advances in allergy and immunology in the last two years. However, the unmet needs of allergic and autoimmune-disease-afflicted patients has grown dramatically in the last 20 years. In response to the increasing prevalence and acuity of allergic diseases and autoimmune diseases, the world has launched products to help address these very severe patients. These medications are indicated for many conditions and work very well. They are generally safe, but are very expensive. These medicines are different than traditional pharmaceutical drugs as they are not chemicals, but biologically derived medicines designed to augment or modify the immune response. As such, they are call biologic medications.

In the field of allergy and immunology, we can now dramatically treat and potentially cure many diseases that in the past were very challenging to manage. The biologic medicines that we have now treat asthma, eczema, allergic disease, and hives. The patient selection is based on severity of their condition, and these medicines are only for moderately to severely affected people. If, as a medical profession, we were to place as many people as possible on these therapies, the cost would be astronomical and not sustainable.

However, is it fair to deny any of these patients access to these treatments who truly need them? I would argue that choice is a very difficult one to make, and as physicians, our primary goal is healing at whatever cost. As a nation, we have a dilemma. Can we afford the medicines we have or not? It is unclear that any serious legislative body is willing to tackle that question. For now, the use of these medicines is changing lives dramatically, and it is an exciting time to be able to use these newer tools to help our patients live better lives.

Eye Care

Dr. David Momnie

Owner, Chicopee Eye Care

Dr. David Momnie

What are the most significant advancements in eye care in the last decade? It depends on whom you ask. Retinal ophthalmologists would probably say it’s the treatment of wet macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness, with anti-VEGF injections. Cataract surgeons would most likely cite small-incision surgery and new lens implants that often leave patients with 20/20 vision. Glaucoma specialists might tell you it’s the development of MIGS, or minimally invasive glaucoma surgery. These operations to lower the pressure in the eye use miniature devices and significantly reduce the complication rate.

Primary-care optometrists and ophthalmologists would no doubt talk about the advances in optical coherence tomography, a remarkable instrument using light waves that gives cross-sectional pictures of the retina. The technique is painless and non-invasive and is becoming the gold standard in eye care because it has revolutionized the diagnosis and treatment of glaucoma and macular degeneration. For optometrists specializing in contact lenses, using newly designed scleral lenses to restore vision in people with a corneal disease called keratoconus has been a major development. There are many other specialists in eye care, including LASIK surgeons, that have seen remarkable changes in technology.

What will the next decade bring? Artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming more accurate for screening, diagnosing, and treating eye conditions. AI systems can increasingly distinguish normal from abnormal pictures of the retina. Where there is a shortage of ophthalmologists and optometrists, AI screenings combined with telemedicine, providing remote care using communications technology, may be able to find and treat more people who are falling between the cracks of our healthcare system. The term 20/20 is the most common designation in eye care, and the year 2020 will probably usher in another decade of remarkable developments in our field.

Information Technology

Teresa Grogan

Chief Information Officer, VertitechIT

Teresa Grogan

From the perspective of technology that enables healthcare, the biggest game changer of the last decade has been the iPhone — and now, essentially any smartphone.

Steve Jobs introduced the first iPhone in 2007 (a little over a decade ago), and physicians embraced it quickly. It started as a simple tool for doctors (applications like the PDR, or Physicians’ Desk Reference) for looking up drug interactions. Today, it’s a portable EMR, a virtual visit facilitator, and a remote-monitoring device for many healthcare providers, as many patients have embraced — and insisted on — this technology to improve access to care. As the cost decreases and cellular bandwidth improves, the rapid growth of the IoMT (Internet of Medical Things) will place smartphones at the center of the next wave of healthcare technology breakthroughs.

Looking forward, I’d like to see complete elimination of passwords to access electronic information. While there has been some movement toward this with ‘tap and go’ badges and fingerprint readers, a single standard is needed that would work regardless of the software program used. I hope there are greater strides in the creation, deployment, and adoption of other biometric technologies, like iris, face, or voice recognition, so that a healthcare professional could walk into a patient room — or into a hospital — and the computer systems would know his or her identity in immediate and secure fashion. If access to the data needed by a healthcare provider were as easy as turning on a light switch, the improvements in quality of life and efficiency in work for that provider would translate to improved patient outcomes.

Cardiovascular Care

Dr. Aaron Kugelmass

Vice President and Medical Director, Heart and Vascular Program, Baystate Health

Dr. Aaron Kugelmass

We have seen many improvements in cardiovascular care over the last 10 years, but the development, approval for clinical use, and dissemination of transcutaneous aortic valve replacement (TAVR) stands out as the most dramatic. This new technique allows cardiologists and cardiac surgeons, working together, to replace the aortic valve without opening a patient’s chest or utilizing heart-lung bypass, which has been the standard for decades. This less invasive approach is typically performed under X-ray guidance and involves accessing a blood vessel in the leg and guiding a catheter to the heart.

The TAVR procedure was first approved for clinical use in November 2011. It was initially limited to very sick patients, who were not candidates for traditional surgery because of the risk it posed to them. TAVR allowed patients who otherwise could not receive life-saving valve surgery to have their valves replaced with improvement in longevity. With time and experience, the procedure was approved for lower-risk patients as well, and more recently has been approved for the majority of patients, including those with low operative risk. TAVR has been shown to be equivalent or safer than traditional aortic valve-replacement surgery, and is quickly becoming the procedure of choice for most patients who require an aortic valve replacement. Since the procedure typically does not require open-heart surgery, recovery time is much shorter, with some patients going home within a day or two.

In the next 10 years, we expect that similar less-invasive procedures with shorter recovery time will be developed for other heart-valve conditions in patients who otherwise could not receive therapy.

Memory Care

Beth Cardillo

Certified Dementia Practitioner and Executive Director, Armbrook Village

Beth Cardillo

During the last 10 years, neuroscientists have been researching the causes of Alzheimer’s disease. There has been much discussion about which comes first — the amyloid plaque or the fibrillary tangles that develop in the brain, which are roadblocks to cognition, thus causing the difficulties with Alzheimer’s and other related dementia. That question has not been answered yet. Researchers were able to isolate the APOE gene, which is a mutant gene that is found in familial Alzheimer’s disease, helping us to better diagnose it. We have also better understood how diet, exercising both body and brain, and lifestyle contribute to the disease. Currently there are 101 types of dementia, with Alzheimer’s accounting for 75% of cases.

The next 10 years will result in more preventive actions. One major action will be to help people avoid developing type 2 diabetes, which may be labeled the next cause of Alzheimer’s (this type of Alzheimer’s is already being called type 3 diabetes). There has been a major link between sugar in the hippocampus and Alzheimer’s disease. Though there is no cure yet for Alzheimer’s, we are finding more information based on genetics, diet, and PET scans, which can show shrinkage in the brain.

Every year, researchers are more hopeful that a new drug will be developed to eradicate the disease. The last new drug from Biogen was looking hopeful in clinical trials, but that turned out to be not the case. Prevention continues to be at the forefront, as well as participating in clinical trials. More people who do not have dementia or mild cognitive impairment are desperately needed for clinical trials so comparisons of the brain can be made.

Nursing Education

Ellen Furman

Director of Nursing, American International College

Ellen Furman

As in all healthcare, the one thing that can be ascertained is constant change. The same can be said in nursing education today. No longer is the instructor-led lecture method of teaching considered best practice in education, but rather the shift to using class time to apply learned concepts. One way this is done is through the ‘flipped classroom.’ Using this educational modality, students study the concepts being taught preceding the class, followed by class time where students apply these concepts in an interactive activity, thereby developing students’ abilities to think critically, reason, and make healthcare judgements based upon the application of knowledge.

Another change in nursing education is an expanded focus away from pure inpatient (hospital-based) clinical education to outpatient (community-based) clinical education. While hospital-based education remains essential, the realization that most healthcare provided is in outpatient settings has broadened the clinical experiences required to prepare the graduate registered nurse for care provision.

Additionally, with healthcare as complex as it is, nursing students are being taught to be prepared for entry into practice. Education regarding the use of evidence-based practice, how to apply for the licensure examination, preparation to be successful on the National Certification Licensure Exam, nurse residency opportunities, interviewing techniques, transitioning from student nurse to registered nurse, etc. are all taught using a variety of educational modalities based upon the current best available evidence in nursing education.

As we forge ahead in healthcare, nurse educators will continue to evolve to meet healthcare needs through the education of nursing students so as to prepare them to provide care to meet the needs of those we serve well into the future.

Orthotics and Prosthetics

James Haas

Co-owner, Orthotics & Prosthetics Labs Inc.

James Haas

Advances in prosthetic technology have clearly been the most significant development in my field over the past decade. From knees and feet that adapt to different walking speeds and terrains to hands that send sensations of touch to the brain, every aspect of patient care has changed and continues to change at a rapid pace.

Prosthetic feet, knees, and sockets have been greatly impacted. Once made from multi-durometer foams and wood, the prosthetic feet of today are made from carbon, fiberglass, and kevlar laminated with modified epoxy resins. They store energy and adjust to uneven terrain and hills. Microprocessor knees have on-board sensors that detect movement and timing and then adjust a fluid/air control cylinder accordingly. These knees not only make it safer for a person to walk, they also lower the amount of effort amputees must use, resulting in a more natural gait. Sockets once made from stiff materials are now incorporated with soothing gels and flexible adjustable systems that allow a patient to make their own adjustments to improve their comfort.

As for the next decade, I hope to see national insurance fairness. Devices typically last about three to five years. Some people make them last longer, but others, especially growing children, need replacements more often. Many private insurance plans have annual caps and lifetime limits on coverage for orthotics and prosthetics. The Amputee Coalition of America authored insurance-fairness legislation and has lobbied for its implementation for over a decade. This legislation has been ratified in 20 states, including Massachusetts. The Fairness Act requires all insurance policies within the state to provide coverage for prosthetics and orthotics equal to or better than the federal Medicare program and have no coverage caps and lifetime restrictions.

Dental Care

Dr. Lisa Emirzian

Co-owner, EMA Dental

Dr. Lisa Emirzian

The most significant development in the field of dentistry over the past decade has been the integration of digital technology into our daily practices. There are three components of digital dentistry: data acquisition, digital planning, and, finally, the manufacturing of the restoration to be created. Data acquisition today is accomplished with digital radiographs, paperless charting, intra-oral scanners, cone-beam 3D scanners, and video imaging. For the planning process, we now have the ability to merge the data with software that enables computer-aided design and digital smile design, allowing dentists to perform complex procedures, including guided surgical treatments and smile designs, with optimum results. Fabrication and execution of the final restorations can be done in the office or, more often, in laboratories with highly sophisticated digital milling machines, stereolithography, and 3D printing.

In the next decade, we will see data fusion to ultimately create the virtual patient. The next-generation digital workflow will merge intra-oral 3D data with 3D dynamic facial scans, allowing dentists to create 3D smile designs and engineer the dentofacial rehabilitation. The integration of scanners and software will expedite the delivery of ‘teeth in a day.’ In addition, multi-functional intra-oral scanners will allow for early detection of carious lesions and determine risk levels for different patients.

Above and beyond this foreseeable future, artificial intelligence (AI) will be the next paradigm shift. Companies are already looking for big-data collection and deep machine learning to help the practitioner in their everyday chores of diagnosis and treatment. AI cloud-based design platforms will input data, and AI engines in the background will aid in all parts of dental treatment, including diagnosis, design, and fabrication of final restoration.

Let us not forget one thing: the future is all about us — people utilizing technology to enhance the human connection between doctor and patient.

Rehabilitation

John Hunt

CEO, Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Western Massachusetts

John Hunt

A significant rehabilitation development from the past includes one that may surprise you. Time. A luxury we once knew, time meant patients could recover in a hospital longer after a surgery, an accident, or an illness. Nurses had more time to assess patients to know exactly what they needed. Insurance companies approved longer patient stays through lengthy consideration. Ten years ago, a stroke survivor could recover for two weeks in a hospital and then join us for a rehabilitation stay that would last several weeks.

Today, a three- to five-day stay in the referring hospital, followed by a two-week stay in rehabilitation, is the norm. We are seeing significant decreases in the age of stroke survivors as well as an increase in the number patients who survive with cognitive and physical disabilities. Yet, we also see medical breakthroughs, including the discovery of tissue plasminogen activator (TPA) — nothing short of a miracle. TPA actually reverses the effects of an evolving stroke in patients when used early on, making recoveries easier.

With new advanced technologies being introduced every year, rehabilitation continues to progress at a rapid speed. Looking into the future, evidence-based research will continue to grow to help us make knowledgeable decisions that ultimately impact patient outcomes. Increased clinical expertise will lead to higher functional gains in shorter amounts of time. As a result, acute inpatient rehabilitation will impact the lives of patients like we’ve never seen before.

Hearing Care

Dr. Susan Bankoski Chunyk

Doctor of Audiology, Hampden Hearing Center

Dr. Susan Bankoski Chunyk

The most common treatment for hearing loss is hearing aids. Although digital processing has been available in hearing aids since 1996, the past 10 years have offered great leaps in technology for people with hearing loss. Each generation of computer chip provides faster and ‘smarter’ processing of sound. Artificial intelligence allows the hearing-aid chip to adjust automatically as the listening environment changes, control acoustic feedback, and provide the best speech signal possible. People enjoy the convenience of current hearing aids’ Bluetooth streaming, smartphone apps, and rechargeable batteries.

These features are ‘the icing on the cake,’ but the real ‘cake’ is preservation of the speech signal, even in challenging listening situations. Since the primary complaint of people with hearing loss is understanding in noise, new hearing-aid technology works toward improving speech understanding while reducing listening effort in all environments. This significantly improves the individual’s quality of life.

The negative effects of untreated hearing loss on quality of life are well-documented. Recent research has also confirmed a connection between many chronic health conditions — including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, balance disorders, depression, and early-onset dementia — and hearing loss. This research shows that hearing loss is not just an inevitable consequence of aging, but a health concern that should be treated as early as possible. My hope for the future is that all healthcare providers will recognize the value of optimal hearing in their patients’ overall health and well-being and, just as they monitor and treat other chronic health conditions, they will recommend early diagnosis and treatment of hearing loss.

Health Care

More Than a Gym

Dexter Johnson says people who work downtown are excited about having the YMCA nearby.

Dexter Johnson can rattle off the amenities found in any chain gym. Weights and cardio equipment. A sauna or pool. Perhaps a playroom for kids to hang out while their parents work out.

But the YMCA offers more than just fitness equipment and childcare for its members — it gives them a community, said Johnson, CEO of YMCA of Greater Springfield, which recently relocated from Chestnut Street in Springfield to Tower Square in the heart of downtown.

The nonprofit recently held its grand opening, and is well underway with programs, fitness classes, and more activities open to members.

The fact that Tower Square, Monarch Place, 1550 Main Street, and other surrounding offices are home to more than 2,000 employees in downtown Springfield is one of several benefits of the YMCA’s move, Johnson told BusinessWest. “The reception has been great. The people that work in this building or in the adjoining buildings have been excited about having us here.”

And it’s no secret why.

The new Child Care Center for the Springfield Y boasts a 15,000-square-foot education center, including classrooms, serving infants through elementary-school students. The Wellness Center continues its popular fitness and health programming with a new, 12,000-square-foot facility on the mezzanine level of Tower Square, complete with a group exercise room, state-of-the-art spin room, sauna, steam room, and walking track.

But Johnson knows the Y is more than just a gym — it’s a cause-driven organization that focuses on giving back to the community through youth development, healthy living, and social responsibility.

“We don’t call ourselves a gym, despite the fact that we have gym equipment,” he said. “We are a community organization, and this is just one of the ways that we serve the community.”

The Bigger Picture

One of the many programs the Y offers is LIVESTRONG at the YMCA, a 12-week personal-training program for adult cancer survivors offered without cost to participants. It also provides families with nearly $700,000 in financial scholarships every year — just two examples of how the Y is much more than just a gym, Johnson said.

“Our goal as an organization is to really make the Y stronger,” he noted, adding that the move to a new facility will greatly reduce costs to allow the organization to expand its services and impact. “The Y is looking to serve the community and to help from the spirit, mind, and body aspects of what people need.”

Before the move, Johnson anticipated the Y would lose about 20% of its members due to lack of a pool and change of location, but added that it has since gained new members and partners that are taking advantage of the services. About 50 new memberships were sold before the move into the new space, just because people knew it was coming.

“Nearly 2,000 people work in these three buildings, so we’re really hoping that those folks will understand the convenience of having something like this right here and not having to go to your car and drive elsewhere to meet your wellness needs,” he said.

Right now, the number of membership units, both families and individuals, is up to about 1,000. In order to increase these numbers, Johnson says the Y is giving tours, reaching out to local businesses and neighbors, and will be offering specials starting in 2020 to get people in the door.

“We’re hoping that we will get a good turnout of people that will give us a try,” he said, adding that a new sauna, steam room, and more than 40 group exercise classes a week are just some of the benefits.

While welcoming those newcomers, Johnson emphasized that the Y is also hoping its long-time members will enjoy the new facility as well.

“Despite the fact that we are heavily focused on the business population, we continue to serve the population as a whole, and we want our members to remember that part because that’s crucial for us,” he said. “We’re really looking to build upon the existing membership by moving here.”

A New Venture

While the new location has more limited space than the original, Johnson says he’s focused on making the most of the new location. That includes utilizing the parking garage by offering members free parking for up to three hours — as well as letting people know what other amenities exist in Tower Square, from retail and banking to UMass Amherst and numerous restaurants, most of them in the food court.

“We understand that the more activity and the more action taking place in this building, the better for everyone,” he said.

Overall, Johnson strongly believes this new facility will help serve the goals of the Y as a whole.

“We think this facility will stabilize the organization,” he said, “while we continue in our other efforts as they relate to our full service at our Wilbraham location, our childcare facilities throughout the city, and all the things the Y is involved with.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

Beyond the Ban

Call it a decisive response to a much less clear-cut problem.

While shop owners may seethe, Gov. Charlie Baker says the state’s four-month ban on selling vaping products is a necessary step while the medical community tries to figure out what’s causing a rash of pulmonary illness among e-cigarette users across the U.S.

“We do not know what is causing these illnesses, but the only thing in common in each one of these cases is the use of e-cigarettes and vaping products,” Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel said. “So we want to act now to protect our children.”

On Oct. 1, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) reported five additional cases of vaping-associated pulmonary injury — two confirmed, three probable — to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), bringing the statewide total of reported cases to 10. (Five of the cases are confirmed, and five are considered probable for meeting the CDC’s definition of vaping-associated lung injury.) At press time, 83 suspected vaping-related pulmonary cases have been reported to the DPH since Sept. 11.

“While no one has pinpointed the exact cause of this outbreak of illness, we do know that vaping and e-cigarettes are the common thread and are making people sick,” Bharel said. “The information we’re gathering about cases in Massachusetts will further our understanding of vaping-associated lung injury, as well as assist our federal partners.”

Some clarity may be emerging, however, particularly concerning the role of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), an ingredient found in marijuana. According to the CDC, 77% of the people involved in the recent outbreak reported using products containing THC. In Massachusetts, five of the 10 cases involved THC, while another four vaped both THC and nicotine; just one of the 10 reported vaping nicotine only.

Based on this recent data, CDC recommends people consider refraining from e-cigarette or vaping products, particularly those containing THC.

“CDC is committed to finding out what is causing this outbreak of lung injury and death among individuals using vaping products,” said CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield. “We continue to work with FDA and state partners to protect the nation from this serious health threat.”

More information is needed to know whether a single product, substance, or brand is responsible for the lung injuries, the CDC noted, adding that the investigation is particularly challenging because it involves hundreds of cases across the country, and patients report use of a wide variety of products and substances.

According to the CDC’s most recent national report, of the patients who reported what products they used, about 77% used THC-containing products, with or without nicotine-containing products; 36% reported exclusive use of THC-containing products; and 16% reported exclusive use of nicotine-containing products.

In addition, the report from Illinois and Wisconsin showed that nearly all THC-containing products reported were packaged, prefilled cartridges that were primarily acquired from informal sources such as friends, family members, illicit dealers, or off the street. THC use is legal and regulated in Massachusetts.

“The main theme seems to be illegal THC products. It’s a mix of chemicals in products to sell on the street that just don’t react that well with the lungs,” Dr. Nico Vehse, chief of Pediatric Pulmonology at Baystate Children’s Hospital, told BusinessWest.

He noted that vaping has posed lung issues since it first emerged in the early 2000s. “Back then, we had a recurrence of what they call popcorn lung. If you get fatty lipids into your lungs, your lung tries to fight it like pneumonia, and that causes a lot of lung damage.”

While much of the vaping news surrounds a lung illness, Dr. Nico Vehse says, nicotine addiction remains a persistent danger, particularly for young people.

Whether the current outbreak is a similar phenomenon or something altogether different is the subject of intense study, at the national level but also in Massachusetts. In mid-September, Bharel mandated that Massachusetts clinicians immediately report any unexplained, vaping-associated lung injury to the DPH. Of the 83 suspect cases reported at press time, 51 are still being investigated, with DPH officials collecting medical records and conducting patient interviews. Twenty-two cases did not meet the official CDC definitions, while the other 10, as noted, were reported to the CDC.

Off the Shelf

Baker went a big step further when, on Sept. 24, he declared a public-health emergency and a four-month statewide ban on sales of all vaping products in Massachusetts. The ban applies to all vaping devices and products, including those containing nicotine or cannabis.

The decision generated some pushback, and not just by retailers. Shaleen Title, commissioner of the state Cannabis Control Commission, assailed the ban in a tweet, posting that it is “purposely pushing people into the illicit market — precisely where the dangerous products are — and goes against every principle of public health and harm reduction. It is dangerous, short-sighted, and undermines the benefits of legal regulation.”

As someone who works with young people, however, Vehse understands the DPH’s concern. Of the 10 reported cases in Massachusetts, five are under age 20. Even absent concern over the current lung illnesses, many vaping products have a much higher nicotine concentration than traditional cigarettes, and some public-health officials are concerned an entirely new generation of young people may be falling prey to nicotine addiction. He noted that some products use salts instead of oils, which may not cause the same kind of lung damage as the oils, but deliver more nicotine.

“They improved on the perfect delivery system for addiction — cigarettes — and made it even more potent for nicotine addiction,” Vehse told BusinessWest. “Nicotine addiction is probably one of the hardest things to quit. I’ve always said you’ll have an easier time quitting heroin than quitting nicotine. It’s the most highly addictive substance we have, legally or illegally.”

As part of its public-health emergency declaration, Massachusetts implemented a statewide standing order for nicotine-replacement products that will allow people to access over-the-counter-products like gum and patches as a covered benefit through their insurance without requiring an individual prescription, similar to what the Baker administration did to increase access to naloxone, the opioid-reversal medication.

Other health organizations praised Baker’s decision, for a variety of reasons.

“In the absence of strong federal action, especially by the FDA, states are being forced to make decisions to protect the health of children and adults from a vaping-related public-health emergency,” said Harold Wimmer, president and CEO of the American Lung Assoc.

“While no one has pinpointed the exact cause of this outbreak of illness, we do know that vaping and e-cigarettes are the common thread and are making people sick.”

“Governor Baker’s announcement reinforces the need for the FDA to clear the market of all flavored e-cigarettes in order to address the youth e-cigarette epidemic,” he went on. “While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local departments of health continue to investigate the hundreds of cases of lung injury from e-cigarettes, the American Lung Association once again urges all Americans to stop using e-cigarettes.”

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Dental Society (MDS) also swung its support behind the ban.

“While vaping is believed to pose fewer health risks than smoking regular tobacco cigarettes — the leading cause of preventable death in the United States — it is by no means harmless,” said MDS President Dr. Janis Moriarty. “E-cigarettes still contain nicotine … which increases the risk of high blood pressure and diabetes. E-cigarettes also can have a significant impact on oral health.”

She cited a study supported by the American Dental Assoc. Foundation that determined that vaping sweetened e-cigarettes can increase the risk of cavities. “Additionally, the nicotine in e-cigarettes reduces blood flow, restricting the supply of nutrients and oxygen to the soft tissues of the mouth. This can cause the gums to recede and exacerbate periodontal diseases. Reduced blood circulation also inhibits the mouth’s natural ability to fight bacteria that can accelerate infection, decay, and other problems.”

Time to Act

The main story, however, remains the recent spate of lung illness. At press time, 805 confirmed and probable cases of lung injury associated with e-cigarette product use or vaping had been reported the CDC by 46 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Those cases included 12 deaths, but none in Massachusetts.

Bharel hopes her department’s reporting mandate will bear fruit in getting to the bottom of what has become a national concern.

“We are beginning to hear from clinicians about what they are seeing in their practice as a result of the health alert,” she said, adding that the mandate “establishes the legal framework for healthcare providers to report cases and suspected cases so that we can get a better sense of the overall burden of disease in Massachusetts. It also will allow us to provide case counts to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as they continue to try to understand the nationwide impact of vaping-related disease.”

In 2018, Baker signed a law that incorporates e-cigarettes into the definition of tobacco, making it illegal to vape where it is illegal to smoke and raising the minimum age to buy tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to 21.

Still, the latest statewide data shows 41% of Massachusetts high-school students have tried e-cigarettes at least once. About 20% of them reported using e-cigarettes in the past 30 days — a rate six times higher than adults. Nearly 10% of middle-school students say they have tried e-cigarettes.

In the past year, DPH has conducted two public-information campaigns to raise awareness among middle- and high-school-aged youth and their parents about the dangers of vaping and e-cigarettes. The department promises to reprise both campaigns in the coming weeks and include resources for young people to assist them with quitting.

Vehse said it’s easier for teenagers to sneak a vape at school than to smoke cigarettes, which may contribute to their use. “It doesn’t smell; it doesn’t stay in the air. It’s completely covert. Now high schools have started to install some vaping sensors in bathrooms. As young as middle school, kids are vaping.”

He had no answer to why the usage numbers are so high among a population that shouldn’t even be able to purchase e-cigarettes, but deferred to the simple psychology of being young.

“Maybe it’s just because you’re a teenager and want to do something you’re not allowed to do. It’s all part of the teenager feeling indestrictible,” he said. “But whether you’re cigarette smoking or vaping, both are addictive, and you’re inhaling stuff you’re not supposed to.”

In many cases, they’re inhaling products flavored and packaged in such a way to appeal to kids, he added. “They pretty much make them look like candy bars on the shelves.”

Following a report from the CDC that 27.5% of kids are using e-cigarettes and that many are initiated with flavored products, the AMA’s Wimmer said, “we also call on the Massachusetts Legislature to pass a law prohibiting the sale of all flavored tobacco products.”

For now, Baker, Bharel, and other state officials will continue to assess their most recent moves as the national effort continues to learn more about — and prevent — vaping-related lung disease.

“One of the experts said that, ‘we don’t have time to wait. People are getting sick, and the time to act is now,’” Baker said when announcing the sales ban. “I couldn’t agree more.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

Cultural Shift

Michael Taylor and Teresa Weybrew say Christopher Heights of Northampton is striving to be ‘the place’ for LGBTQ seniors.

The average age of a Christopher Heights resident is somewhere in the 80s, says Teresa Weybrew, director of Marketing & Admissions at the assisted-living community in Northampton.

That’s an age group that grew up in a less-open time when it came to gender identity and sexual orientation — and members of that generation often still feel anxiety around their peers. But what’s more surprising, Weybrew said, is that, for many, that fear of being openly themselves is heightened when they move into senior-living communities.

“There’s a statistic that, of people who have come out and lived an authentic life in their sexual orientation, when they come into assisted living or skilled nursing, 86% go back in the closet out of fear,” she told BusinessWest. “They’re in an environment where they don’t know how safe they are because they have some memory loss or physical ailments — they’re already vulnerable because they’re not quite physically themselves — and then they have this added layer of anxiety. We want to help them understand that we get it, and they’re going to be OK here.”

Christopher Heights recently hosted a workshop for staff, residents, and public on LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) cultural competency in the senior-living setting. Presented by Rainbow Elders, an arm of LifePath in Greenfield, the event was also part of the process of being credentialed by SAGE, the nation’s largest advocacy organization for LGBTQ elders.

“I want our community to be accepting of other residents,” said Michael Taylor, the facility’s executive director, “but we also want employees to feel comfortable and respected. I see this as making it a welcoming place for both.”

Not all communities are. Angela Houghton of AARP Research writes that three out of four adults age 45 and older who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender say they are concerned about having enough support from family and friends as they age. Many are also worried about how they will be treated in long-term-care facilities and want specific LGBTQ services for older adults.

“I’ve been working with SAGE in a conversation for a couple months,” Weybrew added. “But as I got into it, I realized this isn’t just about having a plaque on the wall. We want to live and breathe and walk the talk and really be the facility that does the work and where people can come in and say, ‘yeah, they really do know what they’re doing, and I feel welcome,’ whether it be an employee or someone who comes to live here.”

Subtle Spectrum

For the recent workshop, Rainbow Elders brought in four people — representing gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender perspectives — to talk about gender, identity, orientation, and how none of those categories are black and white, but rather a spectrum.

“It was good educational background. Each talked about their personal story,” Taylor said, noting that Christopher Heights already employs a handful of LGBTQ individuals and aims to create a more welcoming environment for staff and residents alike — which is why hearing these perspectives shared aloud is important.

The demographics speak to the importance of this issue. By 2030, the population of American adults ages 65 or older is expected to surpass 70 million, according the U.S. Census Bureau. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force puts the number of LGBTQ seniors in the U.S. at 3 million and notes that this figure is expected to double by 2030.

However, LGBTQ seniors frequently report concern over the possibility of encountering discrimination from senior-housing staff or other residents. According to SAGE, 48% of lesbian, gay, or bisexual couples experience “adverse treatment when seeking senior housing,” and transgender elders face such treatment at even higher rates.

Meanwhile, a 2016 report from Justice in Aging notes that 78% of LGBTQ residents in nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, and long-term-care facilities responded ‘no’ or ‘not sure’ when asked if they felt comfortable being open about their sexual orientation or gender identity to facility staff.

Then there are cases like Mary Walsh and Bev Nance, a Missouri couple whose housing application at a local senior-living facility was denied because of a cohabitation policy that defined marriage as between one man and one woman. They sued the facility, but their lawsuit was dismissed by a U.S. district judge in January.

Yes, that’s January 2019, not 1959. Clearly, the work of SAGE and like-minded organizations isn’t done. Cases like this certainly help explain why only 20% of LGBTQ seniors in long-term-care facilities are open about their sexual orientation, according to Justice in Aging.

Yet, attitudes have been shifting — and prejudices hopefully diminishing — over the decades when it comes to this population, and facilities should be welcoming them as an untapped market, notes a report by Sodexo titled “Why ‘LGBTQ-welcoming’ Will Soon Be a Hallmark of the Most Successful Senior-living Communities.”

“Developing a marketing strategy that attracts LGBTQ older adults is the right thing to do,” the report notes. “And it’s good business. Given the opportunity for senior-living operators to advance their growth agenda, developing a strategic plan that attracts and retains LGBTQ older adults and allies is a vital lever to business growth and to improve quality of life.”

To help facilities move in that direction, SAGE launched its credentialing program for retirement communities around the country aiming to create more understanding and resources for these marginalized groups. Its program addresses the specific difficulties LGBTQ older adults face, including abuse, neglect and hurtful comments.

“Most people work with older adults because they have a caring orientation,” said Tim Johnston, director of national projects at SAGE. “We are giving them the tools they need to help older adults feel more comfortable.”

Watch Your Language

In developing a culturally competent and welcoming environment, it is important to address a number of factors, including language, inclusive visuals in company materials, programming, and outreach efforts, according to the Sodexo report.

At Christopher Heights of Northampton, it begins with the application, which used to give only two options for gender — male or female. It may seem like a small thing, but it’s a detail that sets transgender and non-binary individuals on edge right from the start.

“If you’re trans, what do you put?” Weybrew said. “That’s your first exposure to us — and you’re already thinking, ‘all right, they expect me to be a man or a woman,’ when you don’t identify as that.”

She recently asked a resident from the LGBTQ community what might have improved her experience, and she did mention the application form, but she also stressed the importance of respectful communication.

“She said, ‘just ask.’ And we are afraid. We don’t want to offend anyone, and yet, in our fear, we are offending people by not asking them the questions. We want to connect, we need to connect, and that’s what I think this training will offer us — ways to have the conversation. Many people have lived their whole lives feeling either offended or accepted or some awkward in-between. It’s not like we’re going to do something that’s going to shock them.”

Sodexo’s report affirms that idea, noting that “one of the simplest ways to cultivate both understanding and respectful relationships with LGBTQ older adults is through appropriate use of language. Keep in mind, however, that some terms still used by older LGBTQ people may be seen as outdated by younger LGBTQ people. Become familiar with key terminology and pay close attention to how residents use terms and how they refer to themselves and others.”

Indeed, the report continues, “the LGBTQ community is not a monolith. This must be kept in mind when addressing the needs of LGBTQ older adults as well, who have a totally different set of life experiences than younger LGBTQ people. The former grew up in a time that was far less welcoming, when LGBTQ people guarded their sexual orientation and gender identity as a dangerous secret that could cause them to lose their homes, jobs, families, and freedom. They risked being labeled anything from criminal to mentally ill. That generation still carries a lot of this baggage today as they attempt to navigate issues related to housing and healthcare.”

That may be an understatement. SAGE notes that, just a few decades ago, homosexuality was still classifed as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Assoc., not to mention a crime in some parts of the U.S. Housing, employment, and healthcare discrimination were common. As a result, many LGBTQ seniors remain fearful or distrustful of medical and social-service providers.

Weybrew has assembled an advisory board that will continue to meet regularly going forward and bring in educational opportunities for residents, staff, and the larger community.

“It won’t end. It can’t end,” she told BusinessWest. “We have to keep learning, and we have to say, ‘yes, we see you.’”

She knows she’s already dealing with a vulnerable population. “You’re talking about a potential resident who’s scared because they’re leaving their home of 40 years. Their spouse died, they’re losing their health, and they’re coming to a place where they don’t know us. I know what’s like because I did it with both my parents. Now you add that layer of sexual orientation. We want them to know, ‘yeah, it’s cool to be here because we’re going to treat you right.’

“We’re going to have our issues,” she went on. “We might get some pushback from an 88-year-old who says, ‘God says that’s a sin.’ It’s going to happen. And we’re going to learn how to manage that.”

Not Just Seniors

Senior-living facilities aren’t the only ones recognizing opportunities to boost cultural competency among their staffs. For example, Cooley Dickinson Hospital has been recognized as a 2019 Leader in LGBTQ Healthcare Equality by the Human Rights Commission (HRC), the country’s largest LGBTQ civil-rights organization. CDH is the only hospital in Western Mass. and one of only seven hospitals in the Commonwealth to earn this designation.

Among its efforts, Cooley Dickinson has recruited and trained clinicians who specialize in the care of LGBTQ people; implemented changes to electronic medical records that facilitate the use of the patient’s preferred gender, name, and pronouns; and collaborated with local gender-diverse community members, the Fenway Institute, and researchers from Harvard Medical School on the PATH (Plan and Act for Transgender Health) Project, a study that will inform the expansion of gender-affirming health services in Western Mass.

“This designation affirms Cooley Dickinson’s commitment to providing equitable, inclusive, and affirming care for LGBTQQ patients and their families,” said Cooley Dickinson Health Care President and CEO Joanne Marqusee. “We are proud to receive — for the third consecutive year — this honor and to continue our efforts to ensure that our local LGBTQ community has access to respectful, appropriate care.”

Sure, it’s easier for Northampton-based facilities like Cooley Dickinson and Christopher Heights to make these efforts, which are likely to meet with resistance in less progressive areas of the country. But it’s a start.

“We realize it’s going to be an ongoing process, but we as a company are committed to it,” Taylor said.

Weybrew said Christopher Heights is a corporate sponsor of the Out! for Reel film festival, which focuses on LGBTQ-themed films and recently kicked off its season. “I had a chance to get up and speak. The word is getting out that this is going to be a welcoming place, and it starts with us internally asking, how do we make it that place every day? How do we make people feel comfortable?”

The answer is an evolving one — and begins with asking the right questions of those who have felt marginalized for too long.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

Baby Steps

Rachel Szlachetka, Jazz, and Cindy Napoli play in the kids’ room at the Center for Human Development facility on Birnie Ave in Springfield.

When looking at 2-year-old Jazeilis “Jazz” Jones, she seems like any normal toddler who loves to eat and play. But what you can’t tell from looking at her is that Jazz, born a month prematurely, has overcome several developmental hurdles to get to where she is today.

When Diany Dejesus gave birth to Jazz, she was already fighting her own battle with anxiety and depression. A newborn baby who wouldn’t latch to her breast or drink from a bottle only added to her stress and made it nearly impossible for Dejesus to sleep at night. After talking with her therapist, she was referred to the Early Intervention program at the Center for Human Development.

Today, Jazz could seemingly eat all day if you let her, and Dejesus is exponentially more confident as a mother.

This success story, like others similar to it but unique in some ways, wasn’t written overnight, but rather over time and through perseverance — as well a partnership, if you will, between the parent and the 22 staff members of the Early Intervention program.

Erinne Gorneault, a licensed clinical social worker and program director, explained how it works. She told BusinessWest that each child is unique and grows at his or her own pace. But sometimes a child needs help.

“It’s the best feeling in the world to feed your kid. Everybody should be able to have that joy in feeding, and it can be so stressful for our kids who are developmentally delayed or on the autism spectrum.”

With a caseload of 230 families, CHD’s Early Intervention program works with infants and children from birth to age 3 who have, or are at risk for, developmental delays. A CHD team can assess a child’s abilities and, if indicated, will develop an individualized plan to promote development of play, movement, social behavior, communication, and self-care skills. Staff members work with children and their families in their own environment.

The work is extremely rewarding, said Cindy Napoli, an occupational therapist and program supervisor of Early Intervention, who cited, as just one example, how the program can help give parents the gift of being able to feed their child.

“It’s the best feeling in the world to feed your kid,” she said. “Everybody should be able to have that joy in feeding, and it can be so stressful for our kids who are developmentally delayed or on the autism spectrum.”

For Jazz, her biggest challenge was with feeding. At one point, she was labeled as “failure to thrive,” meaning she was unable to grow or gain weight. Even when Napoli and other CHD staff found a solution by having her drink through a straw, she was still struggling. Now, Jazz is thriving, eating more than enough food to keep her healthy, and speaking in full sentences.

“She’s doing so great, I’m so amazed. At the beginning, it started off so slow, I was really afraid for her. I didn’t know what I was going to have to deal with, but she’s way ahead of herself now.”

Erinne Gorneault says that being receptive to parents’ wants and needs is a critical part of the early-intervention process.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at CHD’s Early Intervention program and that aforementioned partnership between team members and parents to achieve life-changing results for both the child and the parents.

Food for Thought

Gorneault said parents often contact CHD’s Early Intervention program because they are concerned about their baby or toddler’s development in the areas of speech delays, or delays in walking or crawling.

The experienced team can assess the possibility of a delay and work with parents and their children to help them attain their milestones — essentially, to catch up — if that’s what’s needed.

Program staff members also work with children diagnosed on the autism spectrum, infants and toddlers with feeding concerns, toddlers with sensory issues, and infants and toddlers with medical needs. They support the family by providing education and improving developmental milestones through teaching parents to interact with their infant or child while building strong emotional relationship. In all cases, staffers work with families to connect them with other community services that might be helpful and provide several playgroups for both community members and CHD Early Intervention families to participate in without interactive team members.

Although the 22 staff members in the program may be the experts, Napoli said the most important part of their work is going at the parents’ pace and empowering them to be advocates for their child.

“It’s about enabling and empowering the parents to be the lead person and the specialist,” she said. “We believe the parents are the specialists. It’s about empowering them and teaching them how to be advocates.”

Gorneault agreed, adding that the trans-disciplinary approach used at Early Intervention allows them to guide parents effectively while also keeping them in the driver’s seat.

Diany Dejesus says that one of the most beneficial things that has come out of her participation in the Early Intervention program with daughter Jazz is that it has built up her confidence as a mother.

“We just help; the parents are the ones doing all the work,” she told BusinessWest. “They’re the ones working on the outcomes; they are making the difference.”

With occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech therapists in the program, staff members use a trans-disciplinary approach to work with families and find the best way to help achieve milestones.

“You don’t go in there with blinders on, thinking, ‘I’m only here for feeding,’ or ‘I’m only here for walking,’” said Napoli. “It’s about where the child is at, where do we want them to go, what are the priorities of the family, and how can we all do it together?”

One of the most important aspects of this program, said those we spoke with, is that the specialists work with the families in their most natural environment, usually the home or a day-care facility, in order to get the most successful outcomes.

“Being in the home, you’re able to adapt the environment,” said Napoli. “You’re able to see what they’re cooking. I can’t say enough about the natural environment.”

One of the priorities during the hour-long sessions staged over several weeks is working on what is most difficult for the parents, said Napoli. Once staffers have made their suggestions, their goal — and their hope — is that parents continue to practice the suggested strategies on their own.

“You’re modeling in hopes to encourage the parent to do the same thing,” she explained.

This is important, she said, because while CHD staff see the child for only one hour a week and specialists may visit a family at different times, parents are with the baby daily, almost 24/7.

Gorneault agreed, adding that being receptive to the parents’ wants and needs is a critical part of the process.

“They run the show,” she explained. “We make recommendations, but if they’re not ready for that, we slow down and just stay at their pace and support them and build their confidence as parents.”

A Matter of Confidence

And a confidence boost was exactly what Dejesus needed.

“I started off doubting everything, due to the fact that I have anxiety and depression; it just made it so much harder for me,” she said. “Little by little, with a lot of help from here and from my therapist, I just got reassured more, and it made me that much more confident.”

Dejesus said the people she interacts with at CHD are like another family, and have helped her achieve the confidence she needs to be a great mother.

“Having more people that can help you and guide you, that really did help me a lot,” she said. “Now, I trust myself and my instincts as a mom when it comes to Jazz.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

Taking Important Steps

By Mark Morris

Dr. Christopher Peteros prepares a patient for laser therapy.

Dr. Christopher Peteros prepares a patient for laser therapy.

Spring weather in New England is a great time to shake off winter’s cabin fever and head outside to take a walk, go for a run, or play a sport. Spring also means an increase in foot injuries from people being too active, too soon.

While overdoing it can cause aches and pains in many areas of the body, it’s easy to overlook our feet, which support everything else and are key to overall quality of life. Those who specialize in this realm of care have a simple word of advice: don’t.

They stress the importance of taking care of one’s feet, listening to them when they are sore and need attention, and fully understanding how it’s not unusual for foot pain to be the cause or the result of other pain in the body.

“Sometimes foot pain causes knee, hip, or back issues, and by the same token, if someone has pain in their knees or back, it puts the foot in an awkward position, resulting in foot pain,” said Dr. Christopher Peteros, a podiatrist with New England Foot Specialists in Longmeadow, who stressed the importance of paying attention to pain, calling it our body’s early-warning system.

“If you feel pain in your foot, knee, or ankle, it’s telling you to stop what you’re doing,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s like the ‘check engine’ light in your car.”

When we walk or run, the foot’s natural movement is known as pronation (the inward roll of the foot) and supination (the outward roll of the foot), both of which move us forward while providing support, cushioning, and balance. Too much or too little of either pronation or supination can cause pain in the feet and other parts of the body.

“I’m not telling people to go walk in the middle of the street, but if you know of a neighborhood with a cul-de-sac or a circular street, those are better choices than sidewalks, which are a harder force on our bodies.”

Terrance McKeon, a physical therapist with Cooley Dickinson Health Care’s Rehabilitation Services in South Deerfield, refers to the foot as the ‘victim,’ because it’s often the one in pain while the culprits can be nearby or as far away as the hip or pelvis. To carry the analogy further, McKeon said that, when investigating the cause of foot pain, the calf muscle is often a prime suspect, because when the calf muscles are tight, the body adjusts by collapsing the foot.

“Your foot tries to maintain balance by unnaturally scrunching the toes,” he explained. “Then the fascia gets stretched, the Achilles tendon gets overstretched, and you may even wiggle your pelvis, all because your calf muscles aren’t letting you get over your foot.” 

Brianna Butcher, a physical therapist at Select Physical Therapy in Enfield, agreed. “When someone walks in with foot issues, the first thing I check is their hips,” she said, adding that, since the glute muscles tend to be weak in many people, it causes more strain to be put on the leg and foot to compensate and maintain balance.

For this issue, we take an in-depth look at what causes foot pain and discomfort and how to prepare your feet for activity.

Walking the Walk

Those who spoke with BusinessWest there are a number of factors that contribute to one’s overall foot health — or lack thereof. These include everything from the level of exercise to the type and condition of the shoes being worn, to the surface that people walk or run on.

Terrence McKeon demonstrates an orthotic insert for a patient.

Terrence McKeon demonstrates an orthotic insert for a patient.

People should be thinking about all of them and making smart decisions, said Butcher, who noted, for example, that serious runners opt for an asphalt road instead of a concrete sidewalk, because the asphalt surface is slightly less harsh on our bodies than concrete.

“I’m not telling people to go walk in the middle of the street, but if you know of a neighborhood with a cul-de-sac or a circular street, those are better choices than sidewalks, which are a harder force on our bodies,” she said, adding that, for those who live near a track, that’s an even better option than walking on the street.

While sidewalks can be too hard on our feet, Peteros said treadmills can create the opposite problem and result in repetitive-motion injuries.

“Some treadmills can be too soft, so as your foot sinks in, it creates an abnormal amount of repeated pronation while the person is walking, which can lead to tendinitis or plantar fasciitis.”

One of the most common causes of foot pain, plantar fasciitis affects the band of tissue that runs along the bottom of the foot from heel to toe. The plantar fascia acts like a shock absorber to support the arch of the foot. Too much strain on it leads to a stabbing pain in the heel.

Many factors can contribute to plantar fasciitis, but it often results from a change in activity levels that puts more stress on the heel. Peteros said likely candidates for plantar fasciitis include the person who hasn’t run in years and then decides to pursue it again, as well as the person who goes on vacation and does more walking than normal while wearing flimsy shoes.

Peteros said a person with plantar fasciitis tends to experience severe pain in the morning after just waking up. The pain subsides a little after moving around, and then, by the end of the day, it increases. He said the pain can move into a cycle that won’t easily go away.

“It’s a very difficult thing to treat in some cases,” he said, “because you’re using that sore foot for every other step you take, unlike a sore hand where you can just carry it around.”  

The first remedy Peteros suggests for plantar fasciitis and other foot injuries is the easy-to-remember acronym RICE: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. People can do this on their own, and in many cases RICE along with good, supportive shoes is enough to solve the problem. If that doesn’t work, he has a variety of treatments to further care for plantar fasciitis.

Anti-inflammatory medicines or cortisone shots are two possible treatment options. While cortisone can be effective for some, Peteros said, he cautions against its overuse because the shots can create ruptures in the plantar fascia instead of healing it.

For several years, he has used laser therapy to treat plantar fasciitis. As an alternative to anti-inflammatory medications, laser therapy uses a beam of light so it’s painless for the patient, works to reduce inflammation, and allows for faster healing. He said the success rate for healing injuries by laser therapy is about 80%.

“Depending on the injury, most patients will need between five and 10 treatments, which take about 10 minutes each. It may not always lead to a cure, but it speeds up the process,” he said.

For chronic foot issues, Peteros also uses shock-wave therapy, which treats plantar fasciitis with sound waves. He said it functions much like the technology that uses sound waves to break up kidney stones, adding that the same company makes the two machines.

When taken care of quickly, he said most people will get great results and no longer need treatment for their plantar fasciitis.

“Some patients may get an occasional flare-up, usually because they did something they shouldn’t have done. The key is to be aware of it, protect yourself, and stop as soon as you feel any pain.”

Getting to the Bottom of Things

That bit of advice applies to all aspects of foot care, said McKeon, who told BusinessWest that, overall, it’s best to best to be proactive and avoid the energetic enthusiasm of taking too much advantage of a nice spring day.

“Your brain says, ‘I used to run five miles a day,’ but when you’ve gone all winter without running even one or two miles, that’s breaking the 10% rule,” he said, explaining that the best way to prevent injury when approaching spring activities is to take it easy in the beginning and gradually increase activity levels no more than 10% a week.

Physical therapists have used the 10% rule for years, and recent studies have supported the idea that the body can react and get stronger from a 10% increase each week for nearly any activity.

“If you can obey the rule, especially for weight-bearing activities like walking and running, you’ll be fine,” said McKeon.

Brianna Butcher inspects a patient’s foot for injury.

Brianna Butcher inspects a patient’s foot for injury.

This can require some pre-planning, he added, noting that simple heel-raising exercises for the calf muscles are a good way to get ready for a walking or jogging routine.

“Strengthening calf muscles is easy because you just go up and down on your toes. Go up on your toes to hit full height, then back down, and do them until you get tired,” he said, adding that the yoga position downward-facing dog is an effective exercise for tight calf muscles. He then stressed that the 10% rule also applies to the stretches.

As essential as good conditioning is to prevent foot injury, these proactive steps can easily be undone by cheap or worn-out shoes — or the wrong kind. McKeon said serious runners should consider new shoes every six months because the foam in the shoe that absorbs the energy of running will lose its ability to bounce back with heavy use.

Peteros also emphasized the importance of protecting the feet with good hygiene and proper shoes. “Whether you are a runner, walker, or any type of athlete, good, supportive shoes are the foundation of healthy feet.”

Peteros recommends shoes designed for the specific activity in mind, with a stiff sole. “If you can bend the shoe in half, it’s not offering support.”

One of the best examples of warm-weather shoes that provide no support are the ever-popular flip-flops. Peteros did not condemn them, necessarily, but referred to them as “purpose-built.”

“If you’re sitting around the pool, or at the beach, or even on your back deck with an iced tea, they’re perfectly fine to wear,” he said, adding that problems arise when people continually wear flip-flops around town, because the feet have to work hard just to keep them on. “Your toes are scrunching as they’re trying to grip the flip-flop, and there’s just no support; they’re actually more trouble than they’re worth.” 

Peteros also mentioned the dangerous practice of people who wear flip-flops to mow the lawn, adding that yardwork is another place where good, supportive shoes matter.

“A lot of people retire their old, beat-up sneakers to wear in the yard, but when you’re doing yardwork, you’re often on uneven ground, when your feet need support the most.”  

A work boot or hiking boot is a great choice for yardwork, he said, because they are lightweight and supportive. Meanwhile, high-top or low-cut shoes are both fine, he noted, stressing that these shoes should be kept just for yardwork; don’t retire them to the yard only after they’ve worn out.

Because every foot is different, people with overly high arches or flat feet often need additional support from custom orthotic inserts. Peteros admits that some people can get good results with over-the-counter insoles and advised that, when shopping for inserts, firmer is better. When a custom orthotic insert is needed, he said the old methods to make them have given way to 3-D digital imaging that results in an orthotic that fits the exact contours of the person’s foot.

“We used to make casts and molds and have people step in foam. I haven’t done those things in at least nine years; it’s all digital now.” 

McKeon said finding the right footwear for those at one extreme or another can be tricky, while people whose feet are more in the middle range may be able to slowly build up strength in their feet and avoid using an insert.

“I tell people that, if they gradually increase their activity levels following the 10% rule, they can improve the strength in their foot,” he explained. “This works well with athletes who don’t like wearing orthotic inserts.”

So, before taking on outdoor activities this spring, remember supportive shoes, the 10% rule, and RICE. You’ll prevent injury to your feet and better enjoy the spring weather.

Health Care

Leveling the Playing Field

Spiros Hatiras

Spiros Hatiras says the Massachusetts Value Alliance has created what he called a “virtual system” for the state’s independent hospitals.

Spiros Hatiras was asked about the Massachusetts Value Alliance and, more specifically, how it improves the buying power of its members, including the one he serves as president and CEO — Holyoke Medical Center (HMC).

He handled the assignment by referencing the hospital’s ongoing work to implement a new electronic medical record (EMR) system, and with an analogy that puts this concept in its proper perspective.

“Let’s say you went to Ford and asked them to build you a car, but told them that, instead of putting the power-switch buttons on the window side, you wanted them on the center console — the cost to customize the car the way you wanted it would be enormous,” he explained. “It’s the same with EMR; what hospitals used to do, and still do, is go to an EMR vendor and ask them to come in and build and install a system for that hospital.”

The Massachusetts Value Alliance, or MVA, as it’s called, is a coalition that is enabling its members to depart from that expensive scenario.

Indeed, several members of the alliance, which now includes 14 community hospitals, have come together to order an EMR system that will be customized for a group — with minor tweaks for each specific facility — and not one hospital. The savings will be substantial — in fact, Hatiras pegs the cost at roughly $5 million for HMC, close to half of what the cost might have been.

“Instead of us individually customizing, we get three hospitals to come together and say, ‘what are the features that make sense for all of us, and let’s build it one time and implement it in three locations.’”

“Our patients are not that different; in fact, they’re not different at all from the other hospitals, and the processes that we use are very similar — the order set, the treatment protocols, are all very similar,” he told BusinessWest. “So, instead of us individually customizing, we get three hospitals to come together and say, ‘what are the features that make sense for all of us, and let’s build it one time and implement it in three locations.’”

This is the very essence of the MVA, which was formed three years ago by founding members Emerson Hospital in Concord, Sturdy Memorial Hospital in Attleboro, and South Shore Health in South Weymouth. It has added new members steadily since then, and the alliance now also includes HMC, Berkshire Medical System, Harington Healthcare System, Heywood Healthcare, Lawrence General Hospital, Signature Healthcare, and Southcoast Health.

These are smaller, independent hospitals that enjoy the benefits of being independent and the ability that gives them to be focused on the needs of their respective communities, said Dr. Gene Green, president of the MVA board of trustees and president and CEO of South Shore Health. But they don’t enjoy the buying power and other cost-saving benefits of being in a larger healthcare system.

Dr. Gene Green

Dr. Gene Green says the MVA gives its members a very potent commodity in these challenging times — buying power.

The MVA, operating under the slogan “Health Care Is Better When We Work Together,” was created to level the playing field in at least some ways.

“There’s always greater bargaining power with numbers,” Green explained, adding that the MVA has helped its members reduce the cost of everything from laboratory services for their patients to health insurance for their employees. “Although a lot of people do group purchasing on common things, there are other things, especially within hospitals and healthcare systems, that are specialized, and so the question was, ‘how do we help each other bring our numbers together and help each have more bargaining power with third-party vendors?’”

The MVA was the answer to the question. It was in many ways inspired by a similar system in Connecticut called the Value Care Alliance (VCA), said Green, and today, the two alliances are collaborating to create additional economies of scale.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Massachusetts Value Alliance and at how it is benefiting its members across the state during what remains a very challenging time for all hospitals, but especially the smaller, independent institutions.

Group Rates

Hatiras told BusinessWest that he was approached by the president of Sturdy Memorial not long after the MVA was created and encouraged to become part of the new group.

As he recalls the conversations, it wasn’t a very hard sell.

That’s because the value — yes, you’ll be reading that word a lot during this discussion — was readily apparent. And value is something these hospitals certainly need.

“We were quick to join — we’ve been a member almost from the beginning,” said Hatiras. “This is something we ought to be doing because, as independent hospitals, our resources are much more limited.

“This was a way to bring these hospitals together and join forces in terms of acquiring resources without merging assets or governance,” he went on, recounting two of the obvious downsides to becoming part of a large healthcare system. “We’re creating an almost virtual system.”

And within this virtual system, there exists that all-important commodity of businesses of all kinds, but especially hospitals that purchase a seemingly endless array of products and services — buying power. The alliance uses it with everything from laboratory services — there’s a contract with Quest Diagnostics — to elevator services, Green explained.

“The question was, ‘how do we help each other bring our numbers together and help each have more bargaining power with third-party vendors?’”

“It was a way for us to help each other find cost reductions and efficiencies to help drive down the cost of care, hopefully — unfortunately, revenues are declining at the same time we’re doing the cost cutting — and serve our communities.”

Hatiras agreed.

“We don’t have the benefits of a, quote-unquote, system,” he said, referring to the independent hospitals in the MVA. “But we replicated a lot of the those benefits with this alliance.

“We don’t have a mothership that can come to the rescue if one of its members isn’t doing so well — we don’t have that backup,” he went on. “But aside from that, all the other benefits of a system are there — the sharing of information, the sharing of best practices, collaboration, shared negotiation on resources, and more.”

And the alliance enables its members to enjoy greater buying power while also remaining independent, meaning decisions are made locally, a quality these hospitals covet.

“As independents, we’re very focused on our communities, and we’re very proud of that,” said Green. “That’s one of the reasons we came together — to see how we could help one another through cost-effective measures to be able to carry on our missions. We all have the same mission and focus on patient care, patient experience, and high quality.

“All of us are good at partnering with people in our own communities,” he went on, “which made us naturals to be able to partner with one another.”

Green said the group will collectively decide where opportunities to collaborate may exist, and then individual members have the opportunity to opt in or not, an operating mindset that provides members with a good deal of flexibility.

“We didn’t want to force anyone into doing something,” he explained. “If you had a contract that was good for five years, when that expires — and we have one — you can opt in, or you can stay with your own, depending on the relationship.

Which brings us back to that example of EMR that Hatiras mentioned. It’s a perfect example of just how and why the alliance works.

This is a project that involves HMC, Harrington Healthcare System, and Heywood Healthcare, all working with EMR-system designer Meditech.

“This allows to take advantage of tremendous economies of scale because we work on a common build and share common resources, which allows to do this build at a significantly lower cost than if we did it alone,” said Hatiras, adding that HMC will go first, with the other hospitals to follow, with an August 2020 ‘go live’ date for the system.

Bottom Line

Green told BusinessWest that, as reimbursement rates for care decrease, or hold steady, and as the price of technology and everything else hospitals buy continues to increase — the savings generated by the MVA are even more important.

“They enable us to stay afloat,” he said in a voice that clearly conveyed just how challenging these times are for all hospitals, but especially those who have chosen to remain independent.

That choice has left them without a safety net, if you will, but in the MVA, they have something that replicates a system in so many ways.

As that chosen slogan suggests, healthcare is better when people work together.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

Implanted Thoughts

Dr. David Hirsh

Dr. David Hirsh says mini dental implants can hold a bridge or crowns in place without requiring surgery and months of recovery.

Early in his career, Dr. David Hirsh used to perform dental work for the then-Springfield Indians, and even back then, there was a clear generational divide among hockey players — one measured by how many teeth they had.

“Everybody used to talk about hockey players having no teeth,” he told BusinessWest. “But the young players grew up with helmets, facemasks, and mouthguards, and they came to the office here, and they had beautiful teeth. Their older counterparts would smile, and there would be nothing there.

“It was a matter of education,” he went on, comparing it to how today’s athletes have a better understanding of concussions for the same reason.

But that focus on education holds true among all dental patients, Hirsh added, not just athletes. Simply put, dentists are seeing people make it past their childhood and young adulthood with healthier teeth than in decades past. “We see a tremendous difference in the younger population, which is very satisfying.”

Since launching his practice in downtown Springfield in 1981 — he has expanded the Bridge Street office four times since then — Hirsh has seen plenty of change in the way care is delivered, particularly in the realm of implants, especially the mini implants he has become known for regionally (more on that later). But some of that change has to do with improving habits.

“We’re here to restore teeth and fix teeth and help patients smile and look good. But we would much rather get these people when they’re younger — meaning children or young adults — and guide them and help them to maintain their teeth,” he explained.

“There’s no fun in making someone a denture,” he went on. “There’s no fun in having to restore a full arch with implants. We do it because there’s a need. But that’s not the goal of dentistry. The goal of dentistry is clearly prevention. My goal has always been having a strong hygiene program, a strong prevention program, and helping guide people — and helping parents guide their children — to better oral health so they won’t have to be in a situation where they need a root canal, bridges, partials, dentures. Those things aren’t the goal. That’s not what we want.”

“There’s nothing more satisfying to me than to have a patient come in missing teeth, and they leave here with a beautiful smile, and they have tears in their eyes.”

But because there will always be a need for restorative dentistry, Hirsh — who practices with Dr. Kelly Soares under the umbrella of PeoplesDental — has taken advantage of plenty of innovations in the world of implants, with the goal of restoring not only teeth, but quality of life to patients with less recovery time than ever before.

Tooth of the Matter

When implants first came on the scene a half-century ago, Hirsh said, they were designed differently, and didn’t exclusively use titanium as they do today, so a membrane would form between the metal and the bone, causing the implants to loosen up.

“Today, every implant system is based on titanium technology — all of them,” he explained. “Titanium is the only metal that fuses directly to bone without forming a membrane around it.”

Implants are typically a surgical procedure, placed into exposed bone after the gums are opened up. “A hole is drilled, the implant is tapped in or screwed in very gently, and then the gums are sutured closed, and you have to wait anywhere from six to eight months in the lower jaw — four to six months in the upper — for that titanium implant to fuse with the bone.”

While traditional implants do a good job of anchoring crowns, bridges, and other structures over the long term, mini dental implants, or MDIs, have been a game changer for Hirsh’s practice.

MDIs are solid, one-piece, titanium-coated screws that take the place of a tooth root. They are much thinner than traditional dental implants and were originally designed to hold dentures in place. However, they have other benefits, including the fact that they stimulate and maintain the jawbone, which prevents bone loss and helps to maintain facial features. In addition, they are stronger and more durable than crowns and bridges that have been cemented into place.

They were first used in the ’90s and have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for long-term use for fixed crowns and bridges and removable upper and lower dentures.

PeoplesDental in Springfield is now certified among a group known as Mini Dental Implants Centers of America — the only one, in fact, in a region that stretches from the Berkshires to Worcester, and from Vermont to Hartford. The organization is associated with the Shatkin Institute, the largest training center in America for MDIs.

“For reasons I don’t understand, mini implants in this area in New England are not widely utilized,” Hirsh told BusinessWest. “I think we’re a little slower than other areas of the country to experiment and do new things. When we have something that works, we don’t like to change. When traditional implants began in the late 1960s, early ’70s, the biggest negative voices were from dentists themselves — ‘you can’t put metal in somebody’s bone.’ Then, all of a sudden, by seeing what could be done, they came around.”

The same may soon happen with MDIs, he went on. “More people around the country are learning that minis are a very, very good alternative to traditional implants. The mini implants are not shorter, they’re just narrower; the largest minis today are equivalent to the thinnest traditional implants. The difference is basically the placement of them and what’s involved from a patient perspective.”

Most notably, no surgery is involved. Rather, the dentist makes a small hole through the gum tissue and into the bone, and screws the implant in.

“It gets its retention from the screwing effect, so you don’t have to wait six to eight months,” Hirsh explained. “That very day, you take an impression and make your final crown or bridge or whatever you’ll use it for.”

He likened the procedure to drilling a thin screw into a piece of wood. “You drill a pilot hole first, then put a screw in that’s a little bigger than the hole, so it bites into the wood. The same thing happens here, except it bites into the bone. It’s about half the cost, it’s less invasive, and there’s less chance of infection and the many types of sensitivity and soreness afterward because that usually comes from the cutting and the stitching.”

Quality of Life

More important, however, is the impact of mini implants on patients’ quality of life, Hirsh said, particularly for those wearing lower dentures.

“Lower dentures float all over the place. Nobody’s ever happy with their lower denture. It sits on a ridge like a horseshoe, and their tongue hits it and lifts it up, and they use pastes and powders that are uncomfortable and taste bad. And at restaurants, they can only eat what their teeth permit them to eat.”

With mini implants, however, a dentist can place four implants into the arch and corresponding attachments into their denture, and the denture can snap into place that same day. When they are used to stabilize upper dentures, the palate portion of the denture can be cut away, which makes it more comfortable and improves the taste of food.

“They can take it out to clean it, but it’s not going to move around,” he said. “There’s no paste or powder, it’s cost-effective, and it changes their life. I’ve done commercials with patients who bite into apples or corn with dentures, and they feel it’s rock solid.”

That’s gratifying for someone who has spent nearly 40 years helping people find solutions to dental issues that stem from genetics, accidents, environmental factors, and plain old bad habits.

In his earlier days, he explained, before dental insurance became more widely accessible, it was more common than today for families to avoid the dentist because of cost — or, if a tooth went bad, just opt for an extraction over a root canal.

“They were in a bad financial situation, or they weren’t educated to take care of their teeth, or a combination of both,” he told BusinessWest. “One tooth goes bad, and they need a root canal to save it, but they don’t want to spend the money, or don’t see the value in it. So they have that tooth extracted, and a year later, another one hurts, and it’s the same thing. All of a sudden, you’re looking at half a mouth of teeth, and half a mouth can’t do the work of a full mouth.”

Sometimes it’s a long process — decades, perhaps — to get to that point, or perhaps something happened suddenly, like a car accident or being struck in the teeth, but without insurance, it can be a challenge for families to get the work they need, at a time when procedures have become less invasive, in many cases, and more cutting-edge.

That’s changing, he said, not just on the insurance front, but as the result of decades of education and advertising the benefits of healthy oral habits. “When I see today’s young people, I don’t think, in the future, we’re going to see the amount of restorative need we see today.”

Until then, Hirsh aims to continue fixing what he can and helping young people forge a path to a future without implants. He’s scaled back to three days a week as he approaches retirement, but says the leisure activities of those coming years may not make him as happy as his current work does.

“There’s nothing more satisfying to me than to have a patient come in missing teeth, and they leave here with a beautiful smile, and they have tears in their eyes,” he said. “I’m not a golfer, but I fully understand hitting a great golf shot is very satisfying — but no one can convince me it’s as satisfying as doing something like that for a patient.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

On the Front Lines

VA Hospital in Leeds, Mass.

Early aerial photo of the VA Hospital in Leeds, Mass.

Gordon Tatro enjoys telling the story about how the sprawling Veterans Administration facility in Leeds came to be built there.
The prevailing theory, said Tatro, who worked in Engineering at what is now the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System for 20 years and currently serves as its unofficial historian, is that the site on a hilltop in rural Leeds was chosen because it would offer an ideal setting for treatment and recuperation for those suffering from tuberculosis — one of its main missions, along with treatment for what was then called shell shock and other mental disorders.

And while some of that may be true, politics probably had a lot more to do with the decision than topography.

“President Warren G. Harding came out and said, ‘stop looking for places … we’re going to put it in Northampton,’” said Tatro, acknowledging that he was no doubt paraphrasing the commander in chief, “‘because Calvin Coolidge is my vice president and he lives in Florence, and we want it to be in or around Florence.’”

Nearly 95 years later — May 12 is the official anniversary date — it is still there. The specific assignment has changed somewhat — indeed, tuberculosis is certainly no longer one of the primary functions — but the basic mission has not: to provide important healthcare services to veterans.

Overall, there has been an ongoing transformation from mostly inpatient care to a mix of inpatient and outpatient, with a continued focus on behavioral-health services.

“We’re more of a managed-care facility now,” said Andrew McMahon, associate director of the facility, adding that the hospital provides services ranging from gerontology to extended care and rehabilitation; from behavioral-health services to primary care; from pharmacy to nutrition and food services. Individual programs range from MOVE!, a weight-management program for veterans, to services designed specifically for women veterans, including reproductive services and comprehensive primary care.

Andrew McMahon says the VA facility in Leeds is undergoing a massive renovation

Andrew McMahon says the VA facility in Leeds is undergoing a massive renovation and modernization initiative scheduled to be completed by the 100th anniversary in 2024.

“When this facility was established, the mission of the VA was much different than it is today,” McMahon told BusinessWest. “We were a stand-alone campus in a rural part of the state that had 1,000 beds and where veterans went for the rest of their lives.

“Now, we are one facility within a network of eight serving Central and Western Massachusetts. We have this beautiful, 100-year-old campus, but the needs of today’s veterans are changing — they need convenience, primary care, and specialty care, and we’re trying to establish those services in the areas where the veterans live, primarily Worcester and Springfield.”

Elaborating, he said that, as the 100th anniversary of the Leeds facility in 2024 approaches, the hospital is in the midst of a large, multi-faceted expansion and renovation project designed to maximize its existing facilities and enable it to continue in its role as a “place of mental-health excellence for all of New England,” as McMahon put it, and also a center for geriatric care and administration of the broad VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System.

By the 100th-birthday celebration, more than $100 million will have been invested in the campus, known colloquially as ‘the Hill,’ or Bear Hill (yes, black bears can be seen wandering the grounds now and then), said McMahon, adding that an ongoing evolution of the campus will continue into the next century.

“President Warren G. Harding came out and said, ‘stop looking for places … we’re going to put it in Northampton, because Calvin Coolidge is my vice president and he lives in Florence, and we want it to be in or around Florence.’”

Round-number anniversaries — and those not quite so round, like this year’s 95th — provide an opportunity to pause, reflect, look back, and also look ahead. And for this issue, BusinessWest asked McMahon and Tatro to do just that.

History Lessons

Tatro told BusinessWest that, with the centennial looming, administrators at the hospital have issued a call for memorabilia related to the facility’s first 100 years of operation. The request, in the form of a flyer mailed to a host of constituencies, coincides with plans to convert one of the old residential buildings erected on the complex (specifically the one that the hospital directors lived in) into a museum.

The flyer states that, in addition to old photographs, those conducting this search are looking for some specific objects, such as items from the old VA marching band, including uniforms and instruments; anything to do with the VA baseball team, known, appropriately enough, as the Hilltoppers, who played on a diamond in the center of the campus visible in aerial photos of the hospital; any of the eight ornate lanterns that graced the grounds; toys made by the veterans who lived and were cared for at the facility; copies of the different newspapers printed at the site, including the first one, the Summit Observer; and more.

Collectively, these requested items speak to how the VA hospital was — and still is — more than a cluster of buildings at the top of a hill; it was and is a community.

The oval at the VA complex

The oval at the VA complex has seen a good deal of change over the years. Current initiatives involve bringing more specialty care facilities to that cluster of buildings, bringing additional convenience to veterans.

“It was like a town or a city,” said Tatro, noting that the original campus was nearly three times as large as it is now, and many administrators not only worked there but lived there as well. “There was a pig farm, veterans grew their own food, there were minstrel shows, a marching band, a radio station … it really was a community.

“In that era, everyone had a baseball team, and we played all those teams,” he said, noting that the squad was comprised of employees. “The silk mill (in Northampton) had one, other companies had them; I’ve found hundreds of articles about the baseball team.”

This ‘community’ look and feel has prevailed, by and large, since the facility opened to considerable fanfare that May day in 1924. Calvin Coolidge, who by then was president (Harding died in office in 1923) was not in attendance, but many luminaries were, including Gen. Frank Hines, director of the U.S. Veterans Bureau.

He set the tone for the decades to come with comments recorded by the Daily Hampshire Gazette and found during one of Gordon’s countless trips to Forbes Library on the campus of Smith College. “President Coolidge has well stated that there is no duty imposed upon us of greater importance than prompt and adequate care of our disabled. And every reasonable effort will be made in that direction. I consider it the duty of those in charge of the veterans’ bureau hospitals to bring about a management and an administration of professional ability in such a manner as to recover many of those whose care is entrusted to them.”

“It was like a town or a city. There was a pig farm, veterans grew their own food, there were minstrel shows, a marching band, a radio station … it really was a community.”

The facility was one of 19 built in the years after World War I to care for the veterans injured, physically or mentally, by that conflict, said Gordon, adding that the need for such hospitals was acute.

“There was a drive in Congress to get the veterans returning from World War I off the streets,” he said. “They were literally hanging around; they had no place else to go. Public health-service hospitals couldn’t handle it, and the Bureau of War Risk Insurance couldn’t handle the cost, and I guess Congress just got pushed to the point where it had to do something.”

That ‘something’ was the Langley bill — actually, there were two Langley bills — that appropriated funds to build hospitals across the country and absorb the public health-service hospitals into the Veterans Bureau Assoc.

The site in Leeds was one of many considered for a facility to serve this region, including a tissue-making mill in Becket, said Tatro, but, as he mentioned, the birthplace of the sitting vice president ultimately played a large role in where the steam shovels were sent. And those shovels eventually took roughly 12 feet off the top of the top of the hill and pushed it over the side, he told BusinessWest.

As noted earlier, the facility specialized in treating veterans suffering from tuberculosis and mental disorders, especially shell shock, or what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the early years, there were 300 to 500 veterans essentially living in the wards of the hospital, with those numbers climbing to well over 1,000 just after World War II, said Tatro.

Gordon Tatro, the unofficial historian at the VA hospital

Gordon Tatro, the unofficial historian at the VA hospital, says the facility is not merely a collection of buildings on a hill, but a community.

With tuberculosis patients, those providing care tried to keep their patients active and moving with a range of sports and games ranging from bowling to swimming to fishing in ponds stocked by a local sportsman’s club, or so Tatro has learned through his research.

As for those with mental-health disorders, Tatro said, in the decades just after the hospital was built, little was known about how to treat those with conditions such as shell shock, depression, and schizophrenia, and thus there was research, experimentation, and learning.

This added up to what would have to be considered, in retrospect, one of the darker periods in the facility’s history, when pre-frontal lobotomies and electric-shock therapy was used to help treat veterans, a practice that was halted in the late ’40s or early ’50s, he said, adding that this is one period he is still researching.

Battle Tested

Over the past several decades, there has been a slow and ongoing shift from inpatient care to outpatient care, said McMahon, who, in his role as associate director, is chief of all operations. He added that there are still inpatient wards at the hospital, and it retains its role as the primary regional provider of mental-health services for veterans.

But there is now a much broader array of services provided at the facility, and for a constituency that includes a few World War II and Korean War veterans, but is now dominated by Vietnam-era vets and those who served in both Gulf wars.

Overall, more than 28,000 individuals receive care through the system, which, as noted, includes both Central and Western Mass. and eight clinics across that broad area. The system measures ‘encounters’ — individual visits to a clinic — and there were more than 350,000 encounters last year.

The reasons for such visits varied, but collectively they speak to how the hospital in Leeds has evolved over the years while remaining true to its original mission, said McMahon.

“We haven’t really downshifted in our inpatient mental health — that’s an area of strength for the VA, and we continue to invest in that area,” he explained. “But in geriatrics, we’re looking to expand our nursing-home footprint, and hopefully double the size of those facilities by the time the 100th comes around — we have 30 beds now, and we’re looking to add maybe 30 more.”

McMahon, an Air Force veteran, said he’s been with the VA hospital for more than seven years now after a stint at Northampton-based defense contractor Kollmorgen. He saw it is a chance to take his career in a different, more meaningful direction.

“To get over into this area and serve the veterans … it’s a job that has a mission behind it,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s more than a paycheck.”

That mission has always been to provide quality care to those who have served, and today, as noted, the mission is evolving. So is the campus itself, he said, adding that ongoing work is aimed at maximizing resources and modernizing facilities, but also preserving the original look of the campus.

Current projects include renovation of what’s known as Building 9, vacant for roughly 15 years, into a new inpatient PTSD facility, with those services being moved from Building 8, an initiative started more than two years ago and now nearing its conclusion.

The new facility will be larger and will enable the VA hospital to extend PTSD care to women through the creation of a dedicated ward for that constituency.

Meanwhile, another ongoing project involves renovation of a portion of Building 4. That initiative includes creation of a new specialty-care floor, a $6 million project that will include optometry clinics, podiatry services, cardiology, and more.

Set to move off the drawing board is another major initiative, a $15 million project to renovate long-vacant Building 20 and move a host of administrative offices into that facility, leaving essentially the entire ‘Hill’ complex for patient care and mental-health services.

“We’re going to get HR, engineering, and other administrative offices down to Building 20 and expand our mental-health facilities around the oval,” McMahon said, referring to the cluster of buildings in the center of the campus. “There’s $40 million in construction going on at present, and by the end the this year, we expect that number to be closer to $60 million.

“There’s a lot of construction going on right now,” he went on. “But things will look good for the 100th.”

That includes the planned museum. The search goes on for items to be displayed in that facility, said Tatro, adding that he and others are working to assemble a collection that will tell the whole story of this remarkable medical facility that became a community.

Branches of Service

Tatro told BusinessWest he’s been doing extensive research on the history of the Hill since he retired several years ago. He’s put together thick binders of photographs and newspaper clippings — there’s one with stories just from the Gazette that’s half a foot thick — as well as some smaller booklets on individual subjects and personalities.

Including one Cedric (Sandy) Bevis.

There’s a memorial stone erected to him in what’s known as Overlook Park, created with the help of that 12 feet of earth scraped off the top of the hill. Tatro found it while out on one of his many walks over the grounds, and commenced trying to find out who Bevis was (he died in 1981) and why there was a stone erected in his honor.

But no one seemed to know.

So Tatro commenced digging and found out that Bevis was a Marine officer who served in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot. He had been shot down more than once but survived. After attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel, he left the service in June 1971, married, and settled in the Florence area. As a Marine Reservist, he got involved with a Vietnam veterans organization called ComVets (short for Combat Veterans) at the VA Hospital and was elected its first president.

“He was honored for his impact on other Marines who were part of ComVets, and they initiated and obtained a plaque for him,” said Tatro, adding that the saga of Sandy Bevis is one of thousands of individual stories written over the past 95 years. And those at the VA facility are going about the process of writing thousands more.

The last line on Bevis’ plaque reads, “He served when called.” So did all those all others who have come to the Hill since the gates opened in 1924. That’s why it was built, and that’s why it’s readying itself for a second century of service.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

Combating ‘Hair Interruption’

By Mark Morris

Joan Quinn, coordinator of the Wig Boutique at the Cancer House of Hope in West Springfield.

Joan Quinn, coordinator of the Wig Boutique at the Cancer House of Hope in West Springfield.

When a cancer patient goes through chemotherapy treatment, feelings of nausea, fatigue, and hair loss are all common physical reactions. For women, loss of hair often adds an emotional element of humiliation and shame.

“I don’t call it hair loss; I call it hair interruption,” said Joan Quinn, coordinator for the Wig Boutique at the Cancer House of Hope (CHH) in West Springfield, who sees her mission as helping women look good and feel better about themselves while their hair grows back.

And she is passionate about her work, as will become abundantly clear.

The Center for Human Development (CHD) runs the Cancer House of Hope as a free community resource to provide comfort and support in a home-like atmosphere for anyone going through cancer treatment. Yoga classes and Reiki massage are among the many services offered there.

As for wigs … Joseph Kane, former director of the Cancer House of Hope (he left that position for another opportunity earlier this month), admits that, while they’ve always been available, they were often treated as an afterthought.

“If someone asked for a wig, we’d pull one out of a plastic tub, and it usually looked like it had bed head; it wasn’t ideal,” he said, adding that this important service has come a long way in recent years thanks to Quinn, who not only provided the drive to create and stock a boutique where there was none, but also staff it with volunteers, maintain a steady inventory, and raise needed funding to keep the operation thriving.

Our story begins with a visit to CHH by one of Quinn’s neighbors, who left her tour thinking that the wig service, such as it was, needed serious help, and that Quinn, a cosmetology-field veteran of more than 50 years who spent 26 years teaching the subject at Springfield Technical Community College, was just the person to provide that help.

“If someone asked for a wig, we’d pull one out of a plastic tub, and it usually looked like it had bed head; it wasn’t ideal.”

“My neighbor said, ‘oh, Joan, I know your standards, and this doesn’t meet them. You should stop in and see them.’”

She did, and this was, coincidentally, after an answered prayer left her looking for a way to give back — and in a big way.

Indeed, a few years earlier, Quinn’s son suffered from a heart condition that required a transplant. As he was living in Iowa City, Quinn flew there to help. “During that time, I prayed that he would receive a heart transplant and promised God that, if he lived, I’d give back tenfold.”

Her son did receive a transplant and is healthy today.

Feeling that she now had to deliver on her promise, Quinn had no idea how she could help the American Heart Assoc. But when the need for a better wig situation presented itself at CHH, she knew immediately she could make a difference.

And she has. Now in operation for more than three years, the Wig Boutique is currently booking appointments five days a week with three volunteer consultants. Quinn estimates the facility has provided more than 300 wigs for cancer patients since opening.

For this issue and its focus on healthcare, BusinessWest explores how the Wig Boutique came to be and why the services it provides are so important to women battling cancer.

Root of the Problem

As she retold the story of how the boutique was launched, Quinn noted that, under some health-insurance plans, cancer patients can purchase a wig and get reimbursed after the fact. In order to be covered under MassHealth, cancer patients must travel to its contracted wig provider located in Worcester.

When Kane learned that three wig providers in the area went out of business, the thought of a dedicated wig program began to sound like a viable idea.

“When I met Joan, she had a vision to make the wig boutique feel like a higher-end service,” Kane said. Likewise, Quinn credits Kane for what she called his “blind faith” that she could convert one of the rooms in the Cancer House of Hope into a boutique on a zero budget.

Volunteer Jan D’Orazio in the Wig Boutique.

Volunteer Jan D’Orazio in the Wig Boutique.

The energetic Quinn began by figuring out how many wigs CHH had and how to get them into presentable shape. Tapping into her network, she convinced her former teaching colleagues at STCC to open their cosmetology classrooms during summer break and made arrangements to have 110 wigs washed. “We even brought in people who didn’t know how to wash wigs, but we taught them.”

Now with a starting inventory, Quinn needed to purchase shelving material and clean lighting for the room. “It had to be organized, and it had to be cheerful,” she explained. “I could not envision people coming in to look through a tub of wigs.”

Before she even had shelves, Quinn approached local businesses and asked them to sponsor $20 shelf tags to be placed in front of each displayed wig. In a short time, she raised enough to pay for the building materials.

While planning the design of the room at the Home Depot, Quinn lamented that she had enough money for materials but not enough to cover labor. The Home Depot associate told her about a program the store sponsors where it would pay for the labor as a donation, a big step toward executing Quinn’s vision.

The finished room resembles a true boutique, displaying 59 wigs under clean lighting with a fitting chair and a full-length mirror. Kane said the boutique provides a unique experience for cancer patients.

“It gives someone who is losing her hair a chance to come in, meet with a professional, and leave with something that does not look like a wig — all for free,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s really powerful.”

When women first come in for a consultation, Quinn said, they are often reliving the horror of having cancer and confronting the reality of their hair falling out.

“Many of the women we see are depressed and fearful of taking off their head covering,” Quinn said. “While we can’t take away their fear, we reassure them that we work with many people in their situation and that this is a safe place.”

She added that the dozens of wigs displayed in the room help to shift the women’s focus away from themselves and onto which style of wig they might want.

“Current wig styles change quickly, so we’re always looking for new styles and quality wigs,” she noted, adding that she approached Sally’s Beauty Supply in West Springfield and left her name on a piece of paper to call if they ever had wigs they wanted to donate. The manager of Sally’s happened to pin Quinn’s contact information on a bulletin board, and one day, when the company discontinued its line of high-end wigs, Quinn got the call and filled two shopping carts with donated wigs. In addition to local donations, CHH receives wig and accessory donations from as far away as North Carolina and California.

Quinn told BusinessWest she is grateful for her network of volunteers and professionals, whom she refers to as her “angels.” She works with many salons in the area whose owners are often former students.

Quinn approached salons with a fundraising idea for the Wig Boutique called “Hang Cancer Out to Dry,” consisting of a small, desk-sized clothesline where customers can attach cash donations with miniature clothespins.

“In its first 17 months, this effort has raised more than $10,000,” Quinn said, adding that it’s not unusual for a salon owner to raise $300 from customer donations and then match it with a $300 donation of their own.

While Quinn pursues donations with great drive and enthusiasm, she also goes after volunteers the same way. Jan D’Orazio was shopping for Christmas decorations at Michael’s when Quinn approached her and asked if she was a hairdresser. D’Orazio replied that many years ago she was, but hadn’t done it in a long time.

“I must have been having a good hair day, because the next thing I knew, Joan was showing me pictures of the boutique on her iPad and encouraging me to join her,” said D’Orazio. “By the time I got to my car, I said, ‘what did I just agree to do?’”

Quinn freely admits she chased down D’Orazio and is glad she did. “Jan is very calm, and she makes people feel comfortable.”

Joni Provost also works with D’Orazio and Quinn as a volunteer coordinator for the Wig Boutique. The three women provide consulting services on selecting wigs. They do not cut or style the wigs, but encourage having that done at a hairdresser. Quinn said sometimes a woman brings along her hairdresser to the boutique. “We want people to feel this could be their hair and their length.”

A Cut Above

D’Orazio said one of the most rewarding parts of working at the Wig Boutique is seeing her clients change in demeanor.

She said many women who come in are feeling down and have what she described as a “cancer look.” The consultation helps to brighten their day and change their whole outlook.

“Last week, a lady came in who is fighting her third bout with breast cancer. When she was getting ready to leave, she was so happy and told me, ‘I feel like Cinderella; I don’t look like I have cancer anymore.’”

Those sentiments speak to how the boutique is providing not only hair and a certain look, but a chance for women to feel better about themselves as they confront perhaps the most difficult time in their lives.

Thus, it’s changing lives in a profound way.

Health Care

Under Pressure

A changing healthcare landscape has doctors feeling stressed, unsatisfied, and burned out like never before — and that could have dire effects on patient care. That’s why the industry is focused on diagnosing the problem and prescribing remedies.

Every day, patients rely on doctors to tackle their chronic health and wellness issues and make them feel better.

But what if it’s the doctors feeling miserable? Or stressed-out, anxious, and overwhelmed? Unfortunately, that’s happening constantly.

Burnout among physicians has become so pervasive that a new paper recently published by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Harvard Global Health Institute, the Mass. Medical Society, and the Mass. Health and Hospital Assoc. deems the situation no less than a public health crisis.

“A Crisis in Health Care: A Call to Action on Physician Burnout,” as the document is titled, includes a number of strategies aimed at curbing the prevalence of burnout among physicians and other care providers, including improvements to the efficiency of electronic health records (EHRs), proactive mental-health treatment and support for caregivers experiencing burnout, and the appointment of an executive-level chief wellness officer at every major healthcare organization (much more on all of these later).

But the report also details just how extensive the problem is, and why it should be a concern for patients. In a 2018 survey conducted by Merritt-Hawkins, 78% of physicians said they experience some symptoms of professional burnout — loosely described in the survey as feelings of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and/or diminished sense of personal accomplishment.

Physicians experiencing burnout are more likely than their peers to reduce their work hours or exit their profession. And that’s concerning in itself; the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services predicts a coming nationwide shortage of nearly 90,000 physicians, many driven out of practice due to burnout.

“The issue of burnout is something we take incredibly seriously because physician well-being is linked to providing quality care and favorable outcomes for our patients,” said Dr. Alain Chaoui, a practicing family physician and president of the Massachusetts Medical Society. “We need our healthcare institutions to recognize burnout at the highest level, and to take active steps to survey physicians for burnout and then identify and implement solutions. We need to take better care of our doctors and all caregivers so that they can continue to take the best care of us.”

Dr. Alain Chaoui

Dr. Alain Chaoui

 “We need to take better care of our doctors and all caregivers so that they can continue to take the best care of us.”

While some have pointed to the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010 — the most significant recent change in the American healthcare landscape — as a stressor, the roots of the crisis date further back, the report notes. For example, EHRs, mandated as part of the 2009 Reinvestment and Recovery Act, have dramatically changed the way doctors allot time to their jobs. And the 1999 publication of the Institute of Medicine’s “To Err is Human” report, highlighting the prevalence of medical errors, directed new attention to the need for quality improvement, physician reporting, and accountability — and brought heightened pressure.

In the past, the report notes, some have proposed ‘self-care strategies’ — such as mindfulness or yoga — as a response to burnout and presented some evidence of limited success with such approaches. However, physicians typically don’t have time to fit such coping strategies into their routine. They also don’t really address root problems.

“Such an approach inaccurately suggests that the experience and consequences of burnout are the responsibility of individual physicians,” it continues. “This is akin to asking drivers to avoid car accidents without investing in repairing and improving hazardous roads. Simply asking physicians to work harder to manage their own burnout will not work.”

Digital Dilemma

As the report noted, a broad consensus has formed that a major contributor to physician burnout is dissatisfaction and frustration with EHRs, which have become ubiquitous in recent years. While the goal of transitioning to electronic records has been to improve quality of care and patient communication, the results have been mixed at best.

“The growth in poorly designed digital health records and quality metrics has required that physicians spend more and more time on tasks that don’t directly benefit patients, contributing to a growing epidemic of physician burnout,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, a VA physician and Harvard faculty member. “There is simply no way to achieve the goal of improving healthcare while those on the front lines — our physicians — are experiencing an epidemic of burnout due to the conflicting demands of their work. We need to identify and share innovative best practices to support doctors in fulfilling their mission to care for patients.”

As Dr. Atul Gawande, a Massachusetts surgeon, writer, researcher, and CEO of the nonprofit healthcare venture formed by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JP Morgan Chase, recently described it, “a system that promised to increase physicians’ mastery over their work has, instead, increased their work’s mastery over them.”

That’s because the patient encounter is now dominated by the demands of the EHR, undermining the crucial face-to-face interaction that has long been at the core of a satisfying doctor-patient encounter, the report notes, adding that, “for many physicians, EHRs impose a frustrating and non-intuitive workflow that makes excessive cognitive demands and detracts from, rather than reinforces, the goals of good patient care.”

Dr. Ashish Jha

Dr. Ashish Jha

 “The growth in poorly designed digital health records and quality metrics has required that physicians spend more and more time on tasks that don’t directly benefit patients.”

In addition, the quantity of mandatory documentation imposed by EHRs — due to regulatory and payer requirements — means physicians typically spend two hours doing computer work for every hour spent face to face with a patient, including numerous hours after work. And they’re frustrated by spending so much time on administrative tasks they feel have little to do with actual patient care.

One promising solution, according to the report, would be to encourage software developers to develop a range of apps that can operate with most, if not all, certified EHR systems.

Improved EHR usability is, in fact, required by law. The 21st Century Cures Act of 2016 mandates the use of open health care APIs (application programming interfaces), which standardize programming interactions, allowing third parties to develop apps that can work with any EHR. This would allow physicians, clinics, and hospitals to customize their workflow and interfaces according to their needs and preferences, promoting rapid innovation and improvements in design.

Another promising but less-developed approach to reducing the HER burden on physicians, the report notes, is the development of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to support clinical documentation and quality measurements.

Mind Matters

The report spends plenty of time on mental health, and for good reason.

“It is clear that one can’t have a high-performing healthcare system if physicians working within it are not well,” it notes. “Therefore, the true impact of burnout is the impact it will have on the health and well-being of the American public.”

To that end, it calls on hospitals and other healthcare organizations to improve access to, and expand, health services for physicians, including mental-health services — while reaching out to doctors and encouraging them to take advantage of such services in order to prevent and manage the symptoms of burnout.

That’s easier said than done, of course, as a stigma still exists around seeking help for mental-health issues.

“Physician institutions — including physician associations, hospitals, and licensing bodies — should take deliberate steps to facilitate appropriate treatment and support without stigma or unnecessary constraints on physicians’ ability to practice,” the report argues.

Last year, the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) adopted a policy reconsidering ‘probing questions’ about a physician’s mental health, addiction, or substance use on applications for medical licensure or renewal, as the existence of such questions may discourage physicians from seeking treatment. “To the extent that such questions are included,” the report says, “those questions should focus on the presence or absence of current impairments that impact physician practice and competence, in the same manner as questions about physical health.”

The FSMB is also calling for state medical boards to offer ‘safe-haven’ non-reporting to applicants for licensure who are receiving appropriate treatment for mental health or substance use. Such non-reporting would be based on monitoring and good standing with the recommendations of the state physician health program (PHP).

Speaking of which, Physician Health Services Inc. (PHS) — a charitable subsidiary of the Massachusetts Medical Society that serves as the PHP for Massachusetts physicians — intends to reach out in a broader way to physicians and hospitals to encourage doctors dealing with burnout and behavioral-health issues to seek appropriate and confidential care.

“Many PHPs in other states have expanded their outreach,” the report notes. “Hospitals and other healthcare institutions should complement and support this effort by acknowledging physicians’ concerns with seeking mental healthcare and clearly identifying avenues and opportunities to receive confidential care, particularly for residents and trainees, who are at a vulnerable stage of their careers.

Finally, the report calls for the appointment of executive-level chief wellness officers (CWOs) at all healthcare organizations. “CWOs must be tasked with studying and assessing physician burnout at their institutions, and with consulting physicians to design, implement, and continually improve interventions to reduce burnout.”

“Patients do not like being cared for by physicians who are experiencing symptoms of burnout, which is significantly correlated with reduced patient satisfaction in the primary-care context. Evidence further suggests that burnout is associated with increasing medical errors.”

The key responsibilities of the chief wellness officer, in addition to acting as an advocate and organizational focal point, may include studying the scope and severity of burnout across the institution; reporting findings on wellness and physician satisfaction as part of institutional quality-improvement goals; presenting findings, trends, and strategies to CEOs and boards of directors; and exploring technological and staffing interventions like scribes, voice-recognition technology, workflow improvements, and EHR customization to reduce the administrative burden on doctors, just to name a few.

CWOs could benefit physicians not just in hospitals, the report continues, but across health systems, and in affiliated practices. “Departments, units, and practices can survey for burnout, begin to identify their areas of focus and barriers to success, and collectively develop solutions. The CWO can help lead this process and provide best practices and other supports.”

Lives in the Balance

In the end, physician burnout is a problem with many triggers, which is why the authors of “A Crisis in Health Care” encourage a multi-pronged approach to counter it. But it’s also an issue with many potential consequences, not just for doctors and their employers.

“Patients do not like being cared for by physicians who are experiencing symptoms of burnout, which is significantly correlated with reduced patient satisfaction in the primary-care context,” the report notes. “Evidence further suggests that burnout is associated with increasing medical errors.”

Dr. Steven Defossez, a practicing radiologist and vice president for Clinical Integration at the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Assoc., said hospitals in the Commonwealth place a high priority on the safety and well-being of patients, so combating burnout will continue to be an area of focus.

“In particular, we recognize the need to further empower healthcare providers and support their emotional, physical, social, and intellectual health,” he said. “This report and its recommendations offer an important advance toward ensuring that physicians are able to bring their best selves to their life-saving work.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

Progressive Course

Laura Hanratty

Laura Hanratty says the number of BCBA students has probably doubled since 2012, a clear sign of growing need for such trained individuals.

In many cases, Alyssa Clark says, progress — in whatever way it is measured — comes slowly.

But in most all cases, it does come, and when it does, it quickly reminds her why she chose this career path — not that she ever really forgets.

Clark was talking about her work as a board-certified behavior analyst, or BCBA, as those with the requisite credentials are called. She works in a few area elementary schools with students in grades K-4. Some are on the autism spectrum, but all of them are defined with an industry term of sorts: social/emotional, which means they have behavioral issues, usually brought on by trauma in their backgrounds — poverty, divorce, or being in foster care, for example.

“Sometimes, progress is slow in coming, but even the little things you see … kids might have that one good day after several bad ones,” she told BusinessWest. “And to be able to see that and know that you could make a difference in that kid’s life and help them…”

She didn’t actually finish the sentence, because she didn’t have to. The satisfaction that comes with such work is clearly apparent. And it is one of many reasons why applied behavior analysis (ABA) is becoming an increasingly popular career path within the broad spectrum of healthcare, and also why programs such as the master’s in ABA program at Elms College in Chicopee, which Clark graduated from recently, were created and continue to see growth in enrollment.

“Every kid that we work with should go through an analysis to determine why problem behaviors are occurring, and then treatment based on that analysis helps address those behavioral concerns.”

But the biggest factor is growing need within the community, said Laura Hanratty, assistant professor and director of both the ABA and ASD (autism spectrum disorders) programs at Elms.

“It’s definitely a growing field,” she said, noting that, when she sat for the certification exam in 2012, there were roughly 10,000 BCBAs in this country; now, there are perhaps twice that number.

Why? The ever-growing number of people diagnosed with autism is a big factor, she said, adding that there are many theories surrounding this surge, but the prevailing one is that there is simply more awareness of the condition and, therefore, more early diagnosis.

But the nature of applied behavior analysis, and the tremendous rewards, as Clark described, are also a factor in the growing popularity of this profession.

When asked to elaborate, Hanratty said there is a good deal of science, some of it rigid in nature, in this field. But there are also large amounts of creativity, and this blend of ingredients appeals to many people looking to enter the broad realm of healthcare.

“What we try to teach our students to do is become a scientist practitioner,” she went on, adding that there is much that goes into that phrase. “Every kid that we work with should go through an analysis to determine why problem behaviors are occurring, and then treatment based on that analysis helps address those behavioral concerns.

“We know that attention and rewards help increase behaviors,” she went on. “So what our students do is take that science side, but then then get really creative and personalize with our kids.”

This ability to be creative is what appeals to Rachel Reyes, currently enrolled in the Elms master’s degree program and working part-time with young people through a company called Positive Behavior Supports Corp. (PBS). She has one client, a 4-year-old with autism she sees three times a week.

“I’m working one-on-one with a child a lot, and that’s what I love most about this work,” she said, adding that she aspires to become a BCBA. “I get to see them grow, I get to see their progress, and I get to know them; I build a relationship with them first so they they’ll trust me.”

For this issue and its focus on healthcare, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the ABA offering at Elms. In the course of doing so, we’ll explain why the program, and the careers it can lead to, have attracted people like Clark, Reyes, and many others.

Down to a Science

When asked how she got onto the path to becoming a BCBA, Clark said a single course on applied behavior analysis she was taking during her undergraduate work at the Elms opened her eyes and changed her career focus.

Alyssa Clark

Alyssa Clark, seen here at the Applied Behavior Analysis International Conference in San Diego earlier this year, says there are many rewards from her work as a BCBA.

“I was in the speech language pathology program,” she recalled. “They mentioned applied behavior analysis; that one class really stuck with me. I knew I always wanted to work with this population of kids, whether it was kids on the autism spectrum or kids with disabilities. So I looked into it more and I saw the behavior side of things, and I loved it.”

Reyes tells a somewhat similar story. She was doing undergraduate work at Westfield State University, studying special education. She had come to the conclusion that she didn’t want to teach and took an introductory course in ABA.

“Prior to creation of this program, there was a master’s in autism spectrum disorders, which was also behavior-analytics-focused, but a little more broad. What we found is that most people who are coming into the program are really interested in the behavior-analysis side, so that’s where most of our students are now.”

“The professor was great — when she would teach, everything was amazing,” she recalled. “I thought about things some more, went to her office, and asked if there were any graduate programs in the field, because I realized that this is what I wanted to do. She told me about Elms.”

Hanratty said many of the students now in the ABA program arrive via a somewhat similar experience, and this helps explain the creation of the master’s program, which accepted its first cohort in 2017.

“Prior to creation of this program, there was a master’s in autism spectrum disorders, which was also behavior-analytics-focused, but a little more broad,” she explained. “What we found is that most people who are coming into the program are really interested in the behavior-analysis side, so that’s where most of our students are now.”

Rachel Reyes, a student in the Elms ABA program

Rachel Reyes, a student in the Elms ABA program, says she enjoys working one-on-one with children.

Students enter the program with a wide diversity of backgrounds, she went on, adding that there are many with a psychology or communications sciences background, who took their undergraduate focus on speech disorders and shifted it to behavioral analysis.

But there are others with backgrounds in education, sociology, social work, and other fields.

“We also get some students who earned their bachelor’s degree in … whatever, and then found a passion for working with kids with autism,” she went on, adding that enrollment in the master’s program fluctuates, but it averages about 17. The smaller size of the cohorts — and the classes themselves — appeal to many students because of the one-to-one support from faculty members.

As she mentioned earlier, ABA is a blend of science and creativity that addresses a range of recognized behavioral issues in people of all ages.

“ABA is based on basic science principles,” Hanratty explained. “We take the basic principles of behavior and apply them to promote changes in behavior among children with autism or behavior concerns. Our students get to take that science and apply it.”

Practitioners use reinforcement — giving some kind or reward or positive contingency — for appropriate behaviors, as well as strategies for reducing inappropriate behaviors.

When asked for an example, she cited a research project she worked on with several of her students, including Clark. Together, they gave a presentation on their work at the Applied Behavior Analysis International Conference in San Diego earlier this year, and also at the Berkshire Conference for Behavioral Analysis.

The project involved one young person exhibiting problem behaviors, said Hanratty. “We did an analysis and found that kids were engaging in severe problem behavior usually to gain some control over their environment — they want to take a break from adult-led activities and just have time to do their preferred activities.

“We taught the kids to ask for control, and then we would reward that, with them being able to have ‘their-way’ time,” she went on. “We gradually started saying, ‘you can’t have your way right now; it’s adult time, and you need to do X,Y, and Z.”

Eventually, the students would come to understand that they can’t always have ‘their-way’ time when they asked for it, and would acquiesce to adult-led activities without immediate reward or reinforcement.

Such progress was noteworthy, because these were students who were engaging in severe problem behaviors, said Hanratty, adding that they would (note the past tense), when asked to do an instruction, aggress toward adults and engage in self-injurious behaviors.

“We were making really impactful outcomes for families,” she told BusinessWest. “It was very rewarding work.”

And just one example of how to blend science and creativity, she went on, adding those attracted to this work now have a number of attractive career options.

These include work in school systems and specifically in special-education classrooms, but also, and increasingly, in the home, working with both children and their families. Others open their own private practices or conduct research. With a doctorate, which some go on to attain, they can teach in the field.

Meanwhile, many students, like Reyes, are finding work in the field, or, in this case, the home, as they’re earning their master’s degree.

“I’d love to stay in the home; I love the home setting,” she said, adding that she enjoys working with not only the child, but the family as a whole.

Bottom Line

Such sentiments, such passion for this demanding yet rewarding work, help explain the growth of the ABA field and programs like the one at Elms.

As Hanratty and her students noted repeatedly, applied behavior analysis is indeed an intriguing blend of science and creativity, a rare mix that is gaining the attention of people from diverse backgrounds and putting them onto the path of becoming a BCBA.

And also opening doors to a wide mix of fulfilling careers.

Health Care

Healthy Development

Baystate Health & Wellness Center in Longmeadow held a grand-opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony on Feb. 25. The $11 million, 54,000-square-foot medical office building offers primary and specialty care, as well as services like Baystate Reference Laboratories and Baystate Radiology and Imaging.

State legislators present Baystate leaders, including President and CEO Mark Keroack (center), citations on the grand-opening occasion

State Sen. Eric Lesser and Keroack share a moment before the event

State Sen. Eric Lesser and Keroack share a moment before the event

The ribbon-cutting ceremony

The ribbon-cutting ceremony

Dr. Elizabeth Boyle chats with state Rep. Angelo Puppolo

Dr. Elizabeth Boyle chats with state Rep. Angelo Puppolo

The back entrance to the new facility at 21 Dwight Road

Health Care

Game Plan

By Mark Morris

James Ferry, certified aging life care manager at Coaching Caregivers Inc.

James Ferry, certified aging life care manager at Coaching Caregivers Inc.

Many adults take on the role of caregiver for an aging parent, but few are prepared for what’s actually involved in taking on that all-important assignment.

What starts out as a trip to the grocery store or a ride to the doctor’s office can, and very often does, become overwhelming when the parent has a medical crisis or other event where their needs suddenly change.

“It often begins with a hospitalization,” said James Ferry, who manages Coaching Caregivers Inc. in Northampton. “Let’s say your mom is admitted for a urinary-tract infection. After a short stay at a skilled-nursing facility, your family is told that she can no longer stay home alone.”

If the family is local, he went on, an adult child, usually a daughter, typically tries to be the caregiver. But as she tries to balance her mother’s care needs with holding down a job and taking care of her own family, burnout inevitably sets in.

And that, unfortunately, is the time when many families usually reach out for help.

“They come to me when they’re exasperated,” said Ferry, a certified aging life care manager with more than 25 years of experience and an advanced degree in social work. He sees his role as someone who helps navigate the complexities of elder care to relieve the family’s burden and develop a course of action that provides a quality life for the elder parent.

He’d rather get involved before people become exasperated, but human nature often precludes that from happening. Regardless of when he does get involved, the goal is the same — to come up with a care plan that works for both the elder parent and the caregiver.

It’s an art and a science, he says, that brings many rewards.

The Big Picture

In order to develop a plan, Ferry starts by doing an assessment.

“I’ll visit the elder in their home and ask them to tell me their family story,” he explained. “At the same time, I’m listening for what’s going on emotionally and with their mental processing. Then we might take a tour around the home to see how they maneuver in that environment, how safe it is, and how realistic is it for them to remain in the home.”

After the assessment, Ferry develops a care plan to best meet the elder’s needs. The plan can range from a few basic services on an as-needed basis to a more substantial plan that provides daily services.

Arranging for help with even simple tasks can provide great relief for the family, he added. “There’s a big difference between having nothing and having a person in place for grocery shopping, doctor’s appointments, or just to walk the dog.”

For more intensive needs, Ferry will often recommend a plan that functions like assisted living, but takes place in the person’s home and still allows for family to be involved.

He refers to this type of plan as a “split-shift approach” in which a caregiver arrives in the morning around 8 a.m. to help the elder client with bathing, getting dressed, and eating breakfast. Then the caregiver will make lunch, clean up after lunch, and leave. The client has the afternoon to themselves to watch TV, catch up with friends, or take a nap. The elder can be alone during this time because they will have a lifeline-type device in the event of an emergency.

A second caregiver arrives around 5 p.m. to prepare dinner, do the cleanup afterward, and help get the client get ready for bed.

“With a plan like this, you can cover the whole day with only seven or eight hours of care,” he explained. “This approach is much less expensive than an assisted-living facility and provides a much higher quality of life for the client.”

This type of plan reflects the current trend of ‘aging in place,’ where services that were once provided in a facility are now delivered in the home. In recent years, home-healthcare agencies have seen strong growth because their services can cost much less than an admission to a long-term-care facility. In addition, studies have shown that people enjoy better quality of life when they can stay in their home and follow their own schedule.

In addition to health concerns, caring for an aging parent also involves financial, legal, and other issues. During this time, family dynamics can bring out a whole new level of stress. “If a family member has a resource agenda, such as the parent’s house or some cash, they could potentially subvert a plan of care because they see it as less going to them.”

Ferry’s role in these situations, he explained, is to be a facilitator who helps the family reach common ground and remind everyone of what’s best for their parent.

Age-old Concerns

The need for the services provided by Coaching Caregivers and similar businesses is sure to increase as more people than ever before are living longer in retirement. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a 65-year-old couple has a 50% chance of one of them living to age 93, and a 20% chance that one of them will reach age 97.

“I work with a lot of people in their 90s who need some help, but clearly do not need a nursing home,” Ferry said, noting that, 25 years ago, far fewer people lived past age 90.

When an aging parent is living a vital and independent life, it’s easy to avoid an elder-care discussion, but he said that’s the time to do it. As difficult as it is to start the conversation with a healthy parent, Ferry said it’s much easier than waiting for a crisis when significant decisions about care must be made under stress.

“When people are desperate for help, they don’t have the capacity to shop around. Instead, they listen to the first person who can offer a solution,” he noted, which may not be in the elder’s best interest.

Ferry counsels people to ask many questions before selecting a caregiver. “Try to get a sense of their reputation. Are they looking out for your parent, or are they steering you to the business they are in?”

There are many professionals who consider themselves care managers, he added, but may represent the interests of an agency or an insurance company. His advice, simply put, is to look for someone who will objectively represent the client’s interests. Once a care plan is in place, he explained, he then takes on the role of ‘consumer advocate’ for the client to make sure they get the services they were promised.

“Professionals like me have no bias for a particular course of action,” he told BusinessWest. “I have relationships with many home-care and assisted-living agencies, as well as other professionals I can recommend. My only interest is what’s best for my individual client.”

Health Care

Lean — But Not Mean

Mark Fulco in the ‘Mission Control’ room at Mercy Medical Center.

Mark Fulco in the ‘Mission Control’ room at Mercy Medical Center.

‘Lean.’ ‘Six Sigma.’ ‘Gemba walks.’ These are terms and phrases, used traditionally on manufacturing shop floors, in relation to continuous improvement initiatives and efforts to take waste out of processes. Today, they’re being heard more in the healthcare realm, and especially at Mercy Medical Center, where efforts are ongoing to improve efficiency without impacting quality of care.

The sign on the door says ‘Mission Control.’

That’s a play on words, obviously. There’s a definite nod to NASA and its famous control room, where decisions were made, and moonshots were choregraphed. But that word ‘mission’ takes on a different, higher meaning at Mercy Medical Center, part of Trinity Health Of New England. The hospital was founded more than 125 years ago by the Sisters of Providence, and its mission to care for the region’s population, and especially those who are traditionally underserved, has been paramount and in most ways more important than the bottom line.

But these days, the mission is being carried out in a different way, said Mark Fulco, president and CEO at Mercy, who recently marked a year at the helm. He noted that, in many ways, the hospital, and the Trinity system on the whole, are taking cues from the auto industry and other business sectors and taking a Six Sigma approach to healthcare — a lean approach, one that manifests itself in a number of ways.

But the major focus is on making the medical center more efficient in ways that will reduce costs without sacrificing quality.

“It’s been a watershed for us, because it has changed our work and has helped us focus on key metrics to drive efficiencies.”

“It’s been a watershed for us, because it has changed our work and has helped us focus on key metrics to drive efficiencies,” said Fulco, adding that the hospital’s efforts to become leaner are reflected in everything from reduced wait times in the ER to an increase in the number of discharges over last year by staffing up more beds; from reducing the overall cost of each discharge by roughly $1,100 to cutting back on travel by using videoconferencing technology.

Overall, Mercy and the Trinity system are eliminating waste whenever possible, creating efficiencies in every department, and constantly looking for ways to improve service without impacting quality of service.

This work extends all the way down to the medical center’s printers and copiers, the number of which has declined noticeably over the past year or so.

“We’ve gone very much paperless,” Fulco explained. “We had two big meetings this morning, and instead of printing out huge packets of information, we did it electronically and on large monitors.

“It’s unbelievable what a color copy costs these days, and when you produce lots of color copies with charts and graphs, it costs a lot of money,” he went on. “So we’ve actually taken printers away and put codes on some of our printers so departments are accounting for every color copy they make.”

This focus on lean practices and accountability brings us back to the room behind the door bearing the sign that says ‘Mission Control’ and its co-called ACE (achieving clinical excellence) boards that track progress in specific areas.

They are part of what is now known as the Trinity Health Management System, or lean daily management, an operating philosophy, if you will, that we’ll explore in greater detail later.

It also brings us to the large conference room, also known as the Patient Safety and Flow Room, a few hundred paces away. Here, each day at 8 a.m. (no one is typically late, because if they are, they have to walk into a room filled with people who were on time), as many as 50 people gather for what are known as ‘huddles.’

These are strategy sessions where issues are discussed, problems are identified, and solutions generated, said Fulco, who offered an example.

“We have several huddles every morning, and one of them is our ‘tier 3 huddle,’ where we bring together leaders from across the entire hospital,” he explained. “The very first thing we talk about is patient safety or problems that came up the night before, or safety catches — like if something was a near-miss — because we want to know, first and foremost, what we need to do to be better and keep patients safer.

“That’s our early-warning system,” he went on. “And at the meeting, if we have a detected infection, we report it, and then we talk about what we can do to prevent another case like that from happening.”

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at Mercy’s broad efforts to employ the principles of Six Sigma and become, in keeping with its mission, lean but certainly not mean, at least in a very literal sense.

Work in Progress

They’re calling it the ‘29-minute pledge.’

That number is significant because of its specificity, meaning it’s not the ‘30-minute pledge,’ a much rounder number to be sure.

It refers to the maximum time it will take for someone visiting Mercy’s Emergency Department to see a physician or physician’s asistant, and this pledge is due to be launched in the coming weeks and announced with billboards and other forms of advertising.

“We’re pledging a door-to-provider time, in our emergency room, of 29 minutes,” Fulco explained, adding that the program has essentially been rolled out already, but the billboards won’t be going up for another few weeks. “We chose 29 minutes because it represents an average of what we can hold out as a pledge; there are times when we’ve averaged 16 minutes.”

The 29-minute pledge is a another example of Mercy’s efforts to improve quality of service while also becoming more efficient and taking cost out of the equation, said Fulco, noting that it is one of many initiatives put in place during what has been a very intriguing and challenging (he would use that word early and quite often, and usually with at least one ‘really’ in front of it) first year at the helm — and year for all those who provide healthcare.

He would sum it all up, sort of, by saying, “I knew what I was getting into — I knew it was challenging; it’s just been more work than I expected — not in a bad way, but in a good way, because it’s been a labor of love.”

What he was getting into is a very demanding climate for not just Mercy but all healthcare providers, one in which reimbursements for services provided, especially from public payers including Medicaid and Medicare, do not really come close to covering the cost of those services.

This disparity is especially large in the broad realm of behavioral health, Fulco noted, adding quickly that, through its facilities at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital, the Trinity Health system is the region’s leading provider of such services.

And these are services that are, from a purely bottom-line perspective, losing propositions, again because the cost of care is not being met by those paying for it. And while Providence and the Trinity system have always been mission-driven, there comes a point where the losses being incurred cannot be sustained, said Fulco, adding that this reality explains why there were inevitable cutbacks at Providence, and in other departments under the Mercy/Trinity umbrella as well.

Mission Control is part of an effort to bring the principles of Six Sigma to Mercy Medical Center.

Mission Control is part of an effort to bring the principles of Six Sigma to Mercy Medical Center.

“We had to make some tough decisions — the status quo simply doesn’t work,” he explained, adding that among these decisions were staffing reductions at Providence (most employees were offered other positions within the system) and cutbacks within or elimination of some departments at Mercy, including the Hearing Center.

While the cutbacks and staff reductions garnered the largest headlines regarding the Mercy system in 2018, a considerable amount of work going on behind the scenes to make the system more efficient, more responsive, and, yes, leaner — efforts like the 29-minute pledge — were perhaps more newsworthy.

As he talked about them, Fulco said these initiatives accurately reflect a system-wide operating philosophy being implemented by Trinity Health Of New England’s recently appointed CEO, Dr. Reginald Eddy, a former emergency-room physician.

“He really gets it,” said Fulco. “He gets it from a care perspective, and he has a strong sense of urgency that he’s really instilled in us in terms of doing it right, doing it well, and doing it quick, not just from a patient perspective, but from a business sense.”

Tracking Improvement

As he talked about the Trinity Health Management System, Fulco said it is focused on quality metrics, or what he called ‘people-centered metrics,’ which are carefully monitored with an eye toward continuous improvement.

As an example, he cited the infection rate, a key issue — and major challenge — for all hospitals.

“Our infection rate has remained below target and below what’s expected for a hospital like Mercy, and is, in fact, one of the 20 lowest infection rates across all the 94 or 95 Trinity hospitals,” he said, using infections from urinary catheters as an example of how Mercy tracks issues and addresses problems.

“Our goal is to be an ‘A,’ and we’re not stopping until we get there, and then we have to stay there, which becomes progressively more difficult.”

Steps such as these have a trackable impact on quality, as measured in a number of ways and by a number of entities, said Fulco, noting that Mercy’s Leapfrog score — its rating based on surveys undertaken by the Washington, D.C.-based Leapfrog Group, improved from ‘C’ to ‘B’ in 2018.

“Our goal is to be an ‘A,’ and we’re not stopping until we get there, and then we have to stay there, which becomes progressively more difficult,” he explained. “But we’ve improved by one whole grade, which is a significant step forward.”

But while quality is certainly an important benchmark, so too is cost, said Fulco, adding that the ultimate goal is to not only improve the overall level of quality but reduce the cost of providing care as well.

“On the cost side, because we’ve been more efficient and we’ve tried to tease out unnecessary expense — and there are several buckets of expense, from labor to non-labor — we have reduced the cost per case by more than $1,100 from last November [2017] to this November,” he said. “And when you multiply that by the 1,400 or so discharges we had, that’s a savings of more than $1.5 million.”

With that, he went to his desk to retrieve the current average cost per discharge, $6,850, a number he had handy, and for a reason — it is carefully tracked, and its downward movement is a source of pride within the system.

It’s been accomplished through a number of means, he said, starting with staffing changes (none at the bedside) that result from consolidation in some areas, such as billing, that are made possible by synergies with the regional Trinity team, thus reducing overhead costs.

Further savings have been achieved on supplies, he said, returning to efforts to go paperless when possible, and also such things as travel expenses.

“We work with people; if they’re printing too much, we take steps to reduce that volume,” he said. “It doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up when you’re saving 50 cents or 75 cents on a print; it adds up over time. And it doesn’t contribute anything to patient care, so we’d rather put the money into patient care than into paper.”

As for travel, it has been cut back as well, he said, noting that meetings between the Mercy team and the system team are now staged electronically. “Instead of having our people drive to Hartford or their people drive here, we’re using technology,” he told BusinessWest.

Huddling Up

As he offered a tour of the Mission Control room, Fulco started by referencing several large charts, called A3 charts, on the wall. Each one outlines an individual’s primary strategic aims, and they are part of the hospital’s lean daily management system.

“An A3 is putting our key objectives and measures all on one page,” he said, referencing his own A3, while noting that the charts track progress toward meeting those specific aims and goals, as laid out in an action plan. “We track this every week; we look at this every week. Every member of the leadership team has one of these.”

And when problems arise at those huddles, as he noted several times, everything is measured.

That goes for efforts to address recognized problems or issues as well, he went on, referring to other charts and the four letters ‘P,’ ‘D,’ ‘C,’ and ‘A,’ which stand for ‘plan,’ ‘do,’ ‘check,’ and ‘act,’ the four stages of tackling a problem, as Fulco identified them.

“This is flowing constantly; it’s changing every day,” he said, adding that the PDCA cycle, as it’s called, was created to generate action on a specific matter and keep things moving.

From Mission Control, the tour moved to the Patient Safety and Flow Room, where there was a comparatively small huddle going on (this was late afternoon). For the 8 a.m. huddles, those assembled have an agenda and start with safety, and move on to a daily operating summary and then performance reports — how well the hospital is doing with patient satisfaction, for example. Next is a round-robin session, at which feedback is sought on problems that have been identified.

But the tier 3 huddle is actually the second step in the process, said Fulco, noting that there are huddles on the departmental level as well. Matters arising at those sessions then come before the larger group, and there is then a Gemba walk. That’s a Japanese term that translates, loosely, into going to the front lines to see what’s going on, to hear from the people involved and come to understand the problem; it is similar in many ways to the concept known as MBWA — managing by walking around.

“A Gemba walk is daily rounding — we’re not sitting in our office or around a conference-room table; where going to see things where they really happen. We’re talking to people who are doing the work, and we’re doing some accountability checks,” said Fulco. “From 8:30 to 9:30 we take that walk, and from there we go to the Mission Control room and do an accountability huddle.

“It’s about getting close to the people,” he went on, “and finding out how we, as leaders, can help them.”

To emphasize these points, he concluded the tour in the Emergency Department, where are charts similar to those in both Mission Control and the Patient Safety and Flow Room.

They track things like wait times and numbers of patients who left without being seen — presumably because the wait times were too long — said Fulco, adding that subsequent huddles and PDCA charts identified the causes of those problems and tracked the success of steps taken to address them.

Healthy Outlook

Gemba walks. PDCA cycles. Huddles. A Mission Control room. These names, acronyms, and places all help explain how, while the mission hasn’t changed at Mercy Medical Center and Trinity Health Of New England, the process of carrying out that mission certainly has.

The emphasis today is on continuous improvement and being lean — without impacting the quality of care being provided at the bedside. As Fulco said repeatedly, in this environment, everything is measured, or charted, and progress is marked daily.

There is considerable work still to be done — this process never actually ends, he said — but progress can be seen in the ER, on the bottom line, and on the charts in the Patient Safety and Flow Room.

It could be seen as paper as well — only they’re using much less of it these days. That’s just part of the process of running lean.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

A Widening Problem

Steve Conca says it can be difficult for people to ask for help losing weight and getting fit, especially if they’re discouraged by all the attempts that didn’t work.

Steve Conca says it can be difficult for people to ask for help losing weight and getting fit, especially if they’re discouraged by all the attempts that didn’t work.

It’s gratifying, Steve Conca said, when people ask for help managing their weight — especially if nothing has worked before.

“When people come to us, they have a laundry list, and sometimes we’ll even write it on the whiteboard — ‘tell me all the stuff you’ve tried that didn’t work,’” said Conca, who owns Conca Sport and Fitness in West Springfield.

“They go on and on about different things, whether it’s a training method or a diet — you name it, they’ve tried it, and it didn’t work. And we draw the line and say, ‘we don’t to be the next thing on that list of 15 things that didn’t work. It stops right here.’”

But that’s easier said than done, he told BusinessWest, because weight loss is more than a numbers game — even when the numbers seem so overwhelming.

“It’s a lifestyle change. It’s mindset, it’s accountability, it’s exercising the right way. It’s eating healthy again and not just counting points. You’ve got to take it one step at a time and get your mind right.”

“It’s a lifestyle change. It’s mindset, it’s accountability, it’s exercising the right way. It’s eating healthy again and not just counting points,” he said. “You’ve got to take it one step at a time and get your mind right — and make sure the effort and exercise you’re going to put in are designed for you specifically, and will work for your body and your metabolism.”

Even people who lose weight, whether through traditional diet and exercise or surgery, often have trouble in the months and years following their initial success, said Dr. Yannis Raftopoulos, director of the Weight Management Program at Holyoke Medical Center.

“The challenge is, how do they maintain this weight in the long run?” he said. “Most practices today aren’t looking to change the person. That’s what we do here, and we have a higher success rate and a better chance to maintain the weight loss. But that’s hard to do. We have seen great successes, but it’s labor-intensive, time-consuming, and a lot of resources are needed.”

And it starts with a decision to take that first step, Conca noted.

“When someone calls and says they need help, that’s a vunerable position they put themselves in. When they come in and sit down, that’s one more big step that can also be another vulnerable spot,” he said. “We take that very seriously that you’re looking to trust us with your health, fitness, and well-being. That’s a huge responsibility, and we take it seriously.”

Wrong Direction

It’s an important responsibility, too, in a country that’s been going in the wrong direction, fitness-wise.

“There’s something that’s dramatically not right,” Conca said. “As a people, we’re getting less active, and we’re eating a much poorer grade of food than we did 20 or 30 years ago.”

Those trends are starting at an early age. According to the latest data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the percentage of children ages 2 to 19 who are obese increased from 14% in 1999 to 18.5% in 2015 and 1016. In the Pioneer Valley, 25% of children are considered obese.

Dr. Yannis Raftopoulos says treatments for obesity are myriad, and crafted on a patient-by-patient basis.

Dr. Yannis Raftopoulos says treatments for obesity are myriad, and crafted on a patient-by-patient basis.

“That means they have a body-mass index that puts them at increased risk as they enter adulthood for diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease, gallbladder disease, asthma, and bone and joint problems. Already, we are seeing more and more youngsters developing type II diabetes, which is commonly developed by overweight adults,” said Dr. Chrystal Wittcopp, medical director of Baystate General Pediatrics, who oversees the Pediatric Weight Management Program at Baystate Children’s Hospital.

“The growing rate of childhood obesity in our country is alarming. Being overweight poses a serious threat to the health of America’s children, and as a society, we must make a concerted effort to decrease its prevalence not only in the Springfield area, but across the country,” she added, noting that obesity carries psychosocial consequences that can also hinder these children academically and socially.

Of even greater concern, there was a large increase in obesity — up to 14% from 9% — in the youngest population of those 2 to 5 years of age.

“My philosophy is, I try to change the patient’s lifestyle. If you want any chance to be successful, you have to change the logistics, how they operate every day.”

Conca sees it, too. “Overall, kids are moving not as efficiently as they were years ago. When we were growing up, kids were outside crawling, jumping, running around, and their bodies developed much differently than the kids now if they’re not forced into a structured activity. Instead, many of them are glued to a phone or a tablet. It’s a generational thing, and we’re seeing it not only on the activity level but the nutrition level as well. Kids don’t appreciate their bodies as much as they should because things like exercise and sleep and nutrition aren’t talked about.”

He recalled talking to an older woman whose infant grandchild’s first word was ‘Dunkin’ Donuts’ — which isn’t as odd as it sounds because the child’s parents were always making fast-food runs.

“She’s distraight about it because it’s not the way she wants her grandkids to be raised, but it’s something that, culturally, a lot of kids are embedded in. And they’re so impressionable at that age.”

When parents choose to eat right and be physically active, Wittcopp added, children are more likely to take note and make those same healthy choices. She said families could encourage each other by walking around the neighborhood together, going on a bike ride, or playing basketball at the park, while limiting time spent in front of the TV and video games, and cooking healthy meals with fresh vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.

“The severe consequences of obesity underscore the critical importance of children and teens to participate in physical activity and to engage in healthy eating habits,” she noted. “Childhood obesity is entirely preventable, and it is up to adults to encourage these healthy habits.”

Plenty of Options

For individuals who are well past those foundational years and frustrated by an inability to get fit, there are plenty of treatment options, Raftopoulos said.

“There are different levels of obesity, and different methods are available based on that,” he told BusinessWest. “For someone mild obesity, surgical options are usually not recommended, though there are some exceptions to that.”

Less drastic options range from classic diet and exercise to medications that restrict appetite, although Raftopoulos isn’t personally keen on those, as they can be expensive, come with side effects, and are not a long-term solution.

“My philosophy is, I try to change the patient’s lifestyle. If you want any chance to be successful, you have to change the logistics, how they operate every day.”

A more dramatic, yet still non-surgical, option is a gastric balloon that is swallowed, inflates, and suppresses the appetite until it’s removed after a few months. Holyoke Medical Center is currently involved in a clinical trial of a more advanced balloon that needs no endoscopic removal, but rather passes into the stool after it deflates.

Then there are the surgical options, specifically gastric bypass and sleeve gastrectomy, both of which drastically reduce the size of the stomach. But, no matter how effective a treatment is, whether surgical or non-surgical, patients face the same challenges afterward.

“Surgery will reduce the portion of the stomach and how much you can eat, but you can gain weight even with a small stomach,” Raftopoulos said. “If surgeons don’t provide the support to change the fundamentals of the patient — if they don’t help you change how you live your life — nothing will be very effective, and you can gain the weight back.”

For people who have struggled with obesity, he noted, there’s a psychological component to maintaining a healthy weight, and one that can be frayed by the stresses of everyday life, from work schedules to parenting obligations to caring for sick parents. That’s why his team works with patients on managing their entire lifestyle — through education and support services — to stay on the right path.

“The problem with how medicine is done today is not seeing the patients holistically,” he said. “Everybody is focused on one thing — ‘oh, your ear hurts? Let’s fix the ear.’ But the ear is connected to something else. And that fragmented mentality affects the patient’s results.”

But when something clicks, Raftopoulis gets excited — not just for that one patient, but for others who may be inspired by their example.

“The more practices do this the right way, and the better results they have, the more people will believe we can help them,” he said. “We need to have more practices do the right thing because there’s a great need.”

Reaping the Rewards

Conca understands the frustration of trying to make a change, and, after a few weeks of poor results, becoming discouraged.

“What they’re doing isn’t working, and after a few weeks, they’re tired and frustrated, and they quit again. Rightly so — if you’re doing something and not getting results, you’re going to stop doing it,” he said.

That’s why he touts his practice’s ‘Fit in 42’ program, an immersive, six-week experience that aims to change not just the number on a scale, but a mindset, through both serious exercise and an emphasis on accountability through activities like daily journaling and connecting with other members, both at the gym and on a private Facebook page.

“That sense of community and connection is so powerful — it’s more powerful than anything we could throw at them exercise-wise,” he went on. “So we have the community component, plus training that works, plus nutrition — there’s no diet, you’re just going to eat good, healthy foods for your body type — and then you see results. We have to show them results.”

It’s a great feeling, he said, when someone trusts him to make a change when nothing has worked before.

“When someone comes in, they have to have a why. From a business perspective, we try to preach that as well. Why are we doing what we’re doing?” he said, before answering his own question.

“People come in, and they’re down in the dumps and just throwing in the towel, saying, ‘I just want to play catch and not hurt, or just roll around on the ground with my kids.’ And it’s really cool to give somebody that. It’s really rewarding.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

The Eyes Have It

Dr. Camille Guzek-Latka

Dr. Camille Guzek-Latka shows a patient an image of her eye and any signs of disease that might be present.

When people think of diabetes, they might think of complications like cardiac disease, but they may not consider what elevated blood-sugar levels can do to their eyes over time. In truth, regular vision exams are a must for diabetics, who are at higher risk of certain conditions, including diabetic retinopathy, that can seriously damage one’s vision. Like diabetes itself, the key to minimizing the risk is often simply diligent lifestyle management.

It’s no secret that diabetes is a growing problem in the U.S., with more than 30 million Americans suffering from this condition that affects blood-sugar levels and leads to a host of complications, from heart disease and stroke to kidney disease, foot ulcers, and eye damage.

It’s that last one that often catches people off guard, said Dr. David Momnie of Chicopee Eyecare.

“A few red flags do go up when we examine patients with diabetes,” he said, explaining that a diabetic eye exam always includes a careful examination of the retina through a dilated pupil, looking for a condition known as diabetic retinopathy (more on that later).

“We also carefully examine the iris for tiny vessels that don’t belong there. We call this condition neovascularization. And we also also look for changes in the lens of the eye, called cataract, and for signs of glaucoma, as both of these conditions occur more frequently in people with diabetes.”

According to the American Diabetes Assoc., about one-fourth of people with diabetes are undiagnosed, which is problematic on many levels, one of which is that diabetics need to have their eyes checked more often — at least once a year — than the general population.

“What’s alarming to us is seeing more young adults and people in their 20s and 30s with type 2 diabetes. The culprit is invariably weight. It’s a global phenomenon as people are spending more time indoors and less time being physically active.”

And, as noted, it’s a condition that’s becoming more prevalent. In Massachusetts alone, diabetes incidence has risen from 3.9% of all residents 25 years ago to about 9% today.

The day BusinessWest visited Chicopee Eyecare early in the afternoon, Dr. Camille Guzek-Latka said she had already seen four patients that day with diabetes — unsurprising because, as a practice that has been around for decades, many patients are older.

“People are living longer, so it’s not surprising to see more people in their 70s, 80s and even 90s diagnosed with diabetes,” Momnie said. “But what’s alarming to us is seeing more young adults and people in their 20s and 30s with type 2 diabetes. The culprit is invariably weight. It’s a global phenomenon as people are spending more time indoors and less time being physically active.”

Yet, not all overweight people develop diabetes, he added, so there are obviously other factors involved — in some cases, there are genetic reasons why the beta cells of the pancreas stop producing enough insulin.

Dr. David Momnie says a key part of seeing diabetic patients is educating them about lifestyle factors that go into their eye health.

Dr. David Momnie says a key part of seeing diabetic patients is educating them about lifestyle factors that go into their eye health.

“Since the likelihood of developing complications of diabetes like cardiovascular, kidney, and eye problems increase over time,” he added, “young people developing diabetes are more likely to have these problems down the road.”

But with early detection, Guzek-Latka said, patients have a good chance of holding off many of the complications, including eye damage, because they can get a head start on controlling their blood sugar with medications and lifestyle changes.

“We tend to spend a little more time with our diabetic patients,” Momnie added, “because we need to have a frank discussion about lifestyle changes like weight control, a well-balanced diet, and quitting smoking.”

I Can’t See Clearly Now

When diabetes does cause eye damage, it’s often in the form of a disease called diabetic retinopathy, which is caused when too much sugar circulating in the blood damages the tiny retinal blood vessels in the retina, which is like the film of a camera.

“Elevated glucose levels cause damage to blood vessels. The most vulnerable vessels, the ones that show the earliest damage, are the smallest ones that lie farthest from the heart, such as those that supply the fingers, toes, kidneys, and eyes,” said Dr. Andrew Lam, an ophthalmologist at New England Retina Consultants, as well as an attending surgeon at Baystate Medical Center.

Diabetic retinopathy, he explained, is the leading cause of blindness in adults aged 20 to 74. “Treating this condition can be one of the most fulfilling, and frustrating, conditions that a retinal specialist encounters.”

“Elevated glucose levels cause damage to blood vessels. The most vulnerable vessels, the ones that show the earliest damage, are the smallest ones that lie farthest from the heart, such as those that supply the fingers, toes, kidneys, and eyes.”

The two most common eye problems that result from diabetic retinopathy are vitreous hemorrhage and macular edema. Vitreous hemorrhage, or bleeding in the eye, typically results from the formation of neovascular blood vessels in the retina.

“The growth of these vessels is actually the eye’s natural response to the lack of normal blood supply in diabetic eyes, but they are bad because they are apt to leak and bleed,” Lam said, noting that doctors can try to stop the proliferation of neovascular vessels with a laser treatment, and sometimes with injections of a medicine called Avastin.

“But when major bleeding in the eye does occur, it can severely affect a patient’s vision — sometimes taking away almost all the vision,” he went on. “The good news is that our techniques performing vitrectomy surgery to remove the blood are very good, and some of our most grateful patients are those whose vision has been restored after a vitreous hemorrhage has been cleared.”

Diabetic macular edema can be a more frustrating condition to treat, Lam said. This occurs from leaking blood vessels causing swelling in the macula of the eye, the part of the retina responsible for detailed central vision. This in turn causes vision loss and distortion.

Dr. Andrew Lam says diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness in adults aged 20 to 74 — and it’s increasing in prevalence.

Dr. Andrew Lam says diabetic retinopathy is the leading cause of blindness in adults aged 20 to 74 — and it’s increasing in prevalence.

“If we can reduce or eliminate the edema, the patient’s vision often improves, but this is sometimes hard to do,” he explained, noting that weapons in the battle can include eye injections with medicines such as Avastin, Eylea, or steroids, or even laser treatments.

“But the problem is that these treatments don’t always work that well, or for very long,” he went on. “Some patients respond quickly and do well, but others have persistent macular edema and blurry vision, even after repeated treatments.”

Guzek-Latka noted that 7.7 million people in the U.S. had diabetic retinopathy in 2010, a number projected to double to 14.6 million by 2050. Because diabetic retinopathy is progressive and does not cause symptoms until vision loss occurs, she stressed that annual exams are recommended, with more frequent follow-ups if retinopathy is detected. Her practice sends reports on ocular health to the patient’s primary-care physician and schedules appointments with a retinal specialist, like Lam, when necessary.

“One of our problems is that we cannot cure the underlying disease: diabetes,” Lam said. “Still, we fight diabetic retinopathy as diligently and as well as we can. I tell my patients to consider this a life-long battle that requires constant vigilance and sometimes many treatments over time. They must also strive to maintain the best blood-sugar control they can.”

Indeed, he noted, diabetic retinopathy can be managed — and sometimes vision loss can be regained — with treatments, but there is no cure because there is no cure for diabetes itself.

“Early detection, monitoring, and treatment of diabetic retinopathy certainly improve the chance that a patient will enjoy good vision throughout their lifetime,” he continued. “It is important that all diabetics have at least an annual eye exam to detect early signs of retinopathy before it becomes vision-threatening.”

Momnie and his team often use a digital retinal camera to take a picture of any diabetic retinopathy that they find, especially if it’s progressing — and not just because it’s beneficial to them in diagnosing and treating it.

“We also want to get the patient involved in managing their diabetes,” he said. “Seeing the actual damage to their retina is often an incentive to better manage their blood sugars.”

Guzek-Latka agreed. “I find it helpful to show people these pictures because, if you show a person a picture of what’s going on for them, it’s like night and day. It’s a powerful tool not only to document what they’ve got, but to educate them.”

Another instrument for tracking people with diabetic retinopathy is an OCT, which stands for optical coherence tomography, which is a scan that produces a cross-section image of the retina, so they can tell if there is any macular edema. “Any time a diabetic patient has reduced vision, we need to rule out diabetic macular edema, and the OCT gives us that information.”

Early Detection Is Key

Lam said there are many other possible manifestations of diabetes in the eye, including cataracts, neovascular glaucoma, tractional retinal detachment, and optic nerve swelling. These are treated in various ways, sometimes surgically. As the only retina practice in Western Mass., he noted, New England Retina Consultants sees many patients with diabetic retinopathy every day.

Momnie stressed that diabetic eye conditions don’t always present with dramatic symptoms at first. “There are some potentially blinding eye conditions that can develop in people with diabetes without symptoms like blurred vision. And yet, these conditions are treatable if caught early enough.”

Tight blood-glucose control is the key to significantly reducing the incidence and severity of diabetic eye disease, he went on, adding that people with diabetes should discuss with their primary-care physician how to keep their levels in an acceptable range.

Like diabetes itself, some people are at increased risk for developing diabetic eye disease, including women with diabetes who are pregnant, people who have had diabetes for a long time, and cigarette smokers those who simply don’t have their blood sugars under control. African-Americans and Hispanics are also at a greater risk of developing diabetic retinopathy.

Eye appointments for diabetic patients can run slightly over the expected time, Momnie told BusinessWest, but it’s not the exam itself that takes longer. “It’s the time we spend talking to the patient at the end of the exam. We want to discuss prevention with lifestyle changes and the importance of knowing certain numbers like their hemoglobin A1C.”

The A1C is a three-month average of a diabetic’s blood sugar; a reading between 5.7 and 6.4 typically indicates prediabetes, and higher indicates diabetes. “We don’t like to see it above 7.0,” Momnie said. “Generally, the lower the A1C, the better.”

As part of lifestyle changes, Momnie discusses with patients what is known as the glycemic index of carbohydrates, which ranks carb-laden foods by how quickly they break down into simple sugars in the body. Carbohydrates with a lower glycemic index, like oatmeal and whole-wheat pasta, take longer to break down, and are better than foods like potatoes and bread, which have a higher glycemic index. It’s all part of a series of decisions diabetics need to make, he said, to keep their numbers down and complications — like eye damage — at bay.

“Early detection, optimal glucose control, appropriate follow-up care, and timely treatment of diabetic eye disease are key to guarding against loss of vision,” Guzek-Latka said, adding that, occasionally, she will look at someone’s eyes and detect diabetic retinopathy, and then begin asking about other symptoms, and it turns out the patient wasn’t aware they were diabetic. Once they know, however, they can do something about it.

“If you know, you have so much control over what you can do,” she said. “But there are so many people that don’t know they have it that are walking around. If we can catch some of those and steer them in the right direction, that’s a big deal for that individual.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

In the Club

Adam Malmborg says kids don’t usually enjoy going to the dentist

Adam Malmborg says kids don’t usually enjoy going to the dentist, but he’d like to make the experience a little more fun.

Going to the dentist may never rise to the level of fun for most kids, but one local practice is making it a little more enjoyable, by using a point system and prizes to motivate young patients to take care of their teeth — and improve their lives in other ways as well.

Adam Malmborg was a teacher before his current role at Flagship Dental in Longmeadow, so he knows a little something about motivating kids.

“I love working with kids,” said Malmborg, the practice’s hygiene coordinator and marketing assistant, whose mother, Katie, is Flagship’s practice manager and marketing manager. “She wanted a kids club — something to get kids more interested in coming.”

So he did some research — lots of it, in fact — into what dental practices around the country were doing to motivate their young patients to get serious about their dental health — a topic that many, understandably, aren’t that enthusiastic about.

“I used to be a teacher, so I know what kids like,” he told BusinessWest. “Basically, what I created is a points system; they can earn points here in the office, at home, and even at school.”

Indeed, the Flagship Dental Young Explorers Club, as the new program is called, assigns point values to dozens of achievements, from losing a baby tooth (five points) to scoring a cavity-free visit (25 points) to coordinating a dental presentation at their school (a whopping 500 points). Every 50 points wins a $5 gift card from a store or restaurant chain of their choice.

“It helps them get excited about coming to the dentist, because I know a lot of kids are afraid to come to the dentist,” Malmborg said. “I was, too. I hated coming to the dentist. Any type of medical office, I hated even the smell of it.”

His mother, who has worked in dental offices for more than 40 years, notices the difference in attitude.

“They’re happy to come to the office, and that doesn’t always happen. It’s a good little reward for them,” Katie said. “I do the marketing for the office, but Adam has taken on the job of getting kids invested in their dental treatment and getting them motivated. They can earn points for coming in, for their report cards, and for things they can do in the community as well. It’s pretty cool.”

Since the program began in March, a few participants have already scored enough points to win a gift card — the options range from Starbucks, Red Robin, Subway, and Dunkin’ Donuts to Walmart, Target, Amazon, GameStop, and many others — while others have banked their points in a quest for a bigger reward. Either way, Malmborg said, they’re having fun making healthy choices.

“I remember being younger, and it’s like, what do I get for having great teeth?” he asked. “Really, nothing. I get a pat on the back and a new toothbrush. My mother was huge on dental care, so she was like, ‘good job, congratulations.’ But coming from a dental office, that ‘congratulations, you’ve worked really hard, we want to reward you’ makes a bigger impression.”

How It Works

Members of the Young Explorers Club are given a membership card — showing it at an appointment earns two points — and a colorful badge; wearing this to the office earns five points, and uploading a photo onto social media wearing the button at school picks up another 10.

Being on time for an appointment is worth five points, a dental cleaning earns 10 points, X-rays get 15, and, as noted earlier, a cavity-free visit earns 25. “That pushes a lot of the kids to brush their teeth and floss,” Malmborg said.

And good works outside of school are rewarded, too, such as an A grade on a report card (two points), straight As (15 points), celebrating a personal achievement by sending Flagship a photo (15 points; one patient recently snapped a picture of her new puppy), and volunteering for community service (five points per hour). And those are just the tip of the iceberg.

“I just want to show the kids we’re supporting them,” Malmborg said of the community and school aspects of the program, adding that anything that gets children thinking about the dentist in a positive way, even peripherally, is a plus.

Some Tips to Ease
a Child’s Dental Visit

Are your kids reluctant to visit the dentist? The American Dental Assoc. recommends the following tips to make the experience less like — well, pulling teeth.

• Plan ahead. “If families want to avoid the rush to go back to school in August,” said ADA spokesperson Dr. Mary Hayes, “then plan on getting appointments for the beginning of the summer.”

• Encourage age-appropriate dental habits at home. To make cleanings easier, parents should encourage their kids to brush twice a day for two minutes and floss once a day.

• Timing is everything. Avoid cramming in a dentist appointment right after school or camp. “If the child has already been exhausted or had a bad day or had tests, they just don’t have the stamina to make it through the appointment successfully,” Hayes said.

• Make one child a model. If you’ve scheduled back-to-back appointments for your children, there’s a simple way to decide who goes first: choose the child who’s had the most positive experiences at the dentist. “You generally want the ones first who are more successful because the others get to see how it goes,” Hayes said.

• Hungry doesn’t equal happy
. Feed your child a light meal before the appointment. “Hungry people are grouchy people. You want them to be comfortable,” Hayes said. Oh, and bonus points if your child brushes before an appointment. That’s just polite.

• Leave your anxiety at the door. If your heart races at the very thought of the dentist, your child can probably tell. “Kids pick up on parents’ anxiety,” Hayes said. “It’s important with kids, especially at 4, 5 and 6, because I believe the phobic adults are the ones who had bad experiences when they were that age.”

• Keep cool if your child won’t cooperate
. If your child gets upset during her visit, the worst thing you can do is swoop them out of the chair and leave. “The next visit is going to be harder. You still have to help them get through part of the visit,” Hayes said. “Give the dentist every opportunity to turn the visit around.”

He’s not done adding to the reward list, he noted; for example, he intends to add points for getting a cavity filled. The rationale? The cavity may not have been an ‘achievement’ worth celebrating, but doing something about it certainly is. “I’m just trying to give the kids more chances at points.”

During each visit, the hygienist fills out a report card based on the child’s account of school and home activities, which is used to add points to his or her total. The patient also gets a second report card, this one based on the results of the cleaning.

“Parents can take this home and have a discussion with their kids — ‘oh, I see you have moderate amounts of tartar or plaque. OK, what do you think we can do better?’” Malmborg noted. “It’s all about the communication at home between the parents and kids. It’s the same as a school report card — it’s important that parents have something to go by.”

Speaking of school, the reason coordinating a dental presentation at a school is worth so many points is because it’s an opportunity to spread these messages about proper dental hygiene to as many kids as possible.

“When we meet with the kids at school, we give kids the tools they need to properly take care of their teeth, because some kids don’t have that — they don’t know what to do, or some parents might not be focused as much on it. That’s why we go in and do that.”

Something to Chew On

The Young Explorers Club is a significant aspect of a shift at Flagship to attract more families with children — a change that’s evident just walking into the waiting room, which features a tepee to climb in, a brightly lit fishtank, an interactive selfie station, and pencil-and-crayon activities lining the walls.

“Our patients are primarily older people, and we did the waiting room with the kids in mind,” Malmborg said. “I don’t want to say they have fun going to the dentist, but we want to get kids excited.”

The activities — word searches, coloring contests, and other brain games — earn three points each, and kids are allowed to do three per visit. “It just gets them doing something in the office, because sometimes in the waiting room, anxiety happens, so as long as folks are doing something fun, they’re not as nervous.”

So far, he told BusinessWest, the points program and other kid-friendly touches are working and getting children thinking more about their dental health.

“They come in, proudly wearing their button and showing their membership card. They’re like, ‘Mr. Adam, I did this.’ I say, ‘don’t worry, I’ve got your points.’ We’ve had a couple of kids turn in their points for gift cards, and they’re already ready for their next one.”

As a program that’s fun for the younger set and keeps them focused on good decisions, Malmborg thinks Flagship has settled on a winner. And he’s glad it’s simple to manage, because, while he’s seen other practices outsource a similar program, that isn’t his style.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s more personable when we can communicate with the kids. This way, they’re not getting rewarded by an outside company; they’re getting it from someone they know.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

Recovery Mission

Michael, a three-time resident of Goodwin House

Michael, a three-time resident of Goodwin House, feels he has finally found the strength and resolve to stay on the path to recovery.

Chantal Silloway started using substances at age 12 and eventually battled her way to sobriety at 25; she’s been clean for 32 years. With her background, she knows full well that no two people take the same path to substance use, and likewise, no two take the same path to recovery. This is the mindset, and operating philosophy, she brings to her role as director of the Goodwin House in Chicopee, a place where young men try to piece their lives back together.

Michael (policy allows use of his first name only) remembers that not long after his family moved while he was in middle school, he started “looking up to the wrong people.”

This was a development that would have consequences he says he couldn’t have foreseen.

He told BusinessWest that his descent into substance abuse began when he started drinking with these individuals and smoking some weed, as he put it. Things would only escalate from there.

“I started doing percocets and slowly became addicted to those,” he recalled. “Then I couldn’t afford them anymore, so I was introduced to heroin, and soon developed a real problem … I wasn’t feeling good when I wasn’t using it, and when I was using it, I felt fine.

“I hated life. It was like … I wasn’t even enjoying the fact that I was super young and had so much to look forward to. I didn’t really care anymore, because all I needed was that drug.”

“Eventually, I turned over to the needle, and once I started shooting it, it became a whole different ballgame,” he went on. “It became my life — that became my top priority every day. I eventually spiraled out of control; I dropped out of high school, I started stealing from friends, family … anything I could do to get that fix.”

Michael was offering these flashbacks while sitting down with BusinessWest on the front porch of Goodwin House, a large home on Fairview Avenue in Chicopee. This unique facility, the only one of its kind in the Commonwealth, is a 90-day program providing substance-abuse treatment for males ages 13-17, operated by the Center for Human Development (CHD). Michael says he feels at home here, and he should; this is his third stint here and also his last.

He’ll be aging out of the program soon, but, more importantly, he feels he has, through the help of those at Goodwin House, found the strength and resolve to stay on the path to recovery, with his next stop hopefully being a so-called ‘sober house’ for individuals over 18.

“This is a great success story — we’re very excited for him,” said Chantal Silloway, program director at Goodwin House and someone who can, like many in positions like hers, speak from experience when it comes to substance abuse and recovery.

“I started using substances starting at age 12, and became clean at age 25; I’ve been sober for 32 years,” said Silloway, who has worked for CHD since 2004 in various capacities involving substance-abuse programs. “It’s long been my goal to lead a program like this one.”

With her background, Silloway knows that no two people take the same path to substance use, and, likewise, none take the same path to recovery. Thus, this 90-day residential recovery program focuses on the uniqueness of each young man that arrives at its door, with a view to self-empowerment and the future they choose.

Chantal Silloway says no two people take the same path to substance abuse, or to recovery.

Chantal Silloway says no two people take the same path to substance abuse, or to recovery.

Elaborating, she said that young men are referred to Goodwin House from a variety of sources, including detox facilities, hospitals, the Department of Children & Families, the Department of Youth Services, and parents and guardians themselves. But where they were referred from is not really important, she said. What is, however, is that they arrive with a willingness to help themselves.

Without that, recovery is simply not attainable, she went on, adding that Michael is a good example of this, as we’ll see, and also an example of why many residents make return visits to this facility.

At Goodwin House, a team of clinicians and recovery specialists use evidence-based programs to help residents find and maintain sobriety. Treatment programs include assessment and treatment planning, individual and group therapy, recovery school and/or educational tutoring, vocational and employment-search assistance, recovery meetings, and after-care services and resources.

Often, said Silloway, the path to recovery means getting family members deeply involved in the process, so there is a family-therapy program as well.

Success at this facility is measured in different ways, she went on, adding that while residents do “graduate” from this program and there is a ceremony to commemorate that, there are other milestones, such as ongoing care, accomplishing specific goals that residents have set, and simply becoming ‘stabilized,’ a significant goal in itself.

For this issue, BusinessWest paid a visit to Goodwin House and talked at length with Silloway and Michael. And it is through his eyes, and his thoughts, that we came to understand what happens at this unique facility and how it is helping others change the course of their lives.

Strong Dose of Reality

Flashing back again to those days when heroin was dominating his life, Michael said he needed five to 30 bags of the drug a day, meaning he needed $20 to $80 a day to fuel his habit. And, as he said, he would do anything he had to do to come up with that cash.

Addiction caused him no end of legal problems, and it strained relationships with family and friends to the tipping point and beyond, he went on. But the actual toll was much, much higher.

“I hated life,” he said. “It was like … I wasn’t even enjoying the fact that I was super young and had so much to look forward to. I didn’t really care anymore, because all I needed was that drug.”

Most all of the people who come to Goodwin House are there because they arrived at the same place that Michael did, said Silloway — a place where they probably hated life and didn’t really care anymore. And they needed a way out and a path to a better life.

Helping to provide all that was the motivation for Goodwin House, a facility named after Jim Goodwin, long-time director of CHD. It opened its doors in May 2017.

“Eventually, I turned over to the needle, and once I started shooting it, it became a whole different ballgame. It became my life — that became my top priority every day. I eventually spiraled out of control; I dropped out of high school, I started stealing from friends, family … anything I could do to get that fix.”

The program operated there was created from the ground up by Silloway, and modeled loosely on a similar facility for young girls ages 13-17 in the Worcester area called Highland Grace House.

Residents must have a substance-abuse disorder, and the substances range from marijuana to alcohol to opioids, said Silloway, adding that a resident’s journey there begins with a referral, usually after a stint in detox.

This is a treatment facility and a next step after detox, she told BusinessWest, adding that Goodwin House can accommodate up to 15 young men at a given time. There are a handful there now, and there could and should be more given the state of the opioid crisis in this state and this country, she went on, but there is still a powerful stigma attached to addiction, and this is, unfortunately, keeping many from seeking the help they need.

Residents — that’s the term used to describe those participating in the program — come from across the Commonwealth, noted Silloway. They arrive, as she noted earlier, under different circumstances and with unique backstories.

But the common denominator is that successful recovery must begin with admitting that one has a problem, and possessing a willingness to do something about it — ingredients that are very often missing from the equation.

“We focus on them wanting to be here as opposed to being mandated, and some can be mandated to come,” she explained. “When they get here, they need to have a willingness to work on themselves.”

At Home with the Concept

Indeed, Michael said his first visit to Goodwin House was triggered by his arrest on various charges (he didn’t want to get into any great detail) in November 2017, followed by a stint in detox.

“I was sent here,” he said, putting heavy emphasis on that word ‘sent.’ “I came here for all the wrong reasons; I wasn’t coming here for myself at first, I was coming for the courts.”

With the benefit of hindsight, he believes that first time in detox and his initial visit to Fairview Avenue ultimately saved his life. But he knows now that he when he first arrived, he just wasn’t ready to change — as in change his friends, the places he hung out at, or, most importantly, himself as a person.

This residential treatment program for males ages 13-17 is the only facility of its kind in the Commonwealth.

This residential treatment program for males ages 13-17 is the only facility of its kind in the Commonwealth.

He started using again while he was at Goodwin House, got kicked out of the program, went back to detox, came back to Goodwin House, used again after only a few weeks, and was again kicked out of the program. He went to detox yet again and then to a halfway house in the Boston area, where he was discharged for using. The frustrating cycle continued with one more trip to detox and his third referral to Goodwin House. This time, though, things were different.

Silloway told BusinessWest that those addicted to substances like heroin, other drugs, and even alcohol are essentially in recovery for the rest of their lives. Recovery is a journey, and very often a long and difficult one, she went on, adding that is why it is not considered a failure to relapse and return to Goodwin House a few times, as Michael has.

“As someone’s leaving,” she said, “we say, ‘we hope we don’t see you back here, but if you need us, we’re here.’”

Michael still needed them, and they were there for him when he checked back in over the summer. Only this time, he arrived with a different attitude.

“When I went to detox for the fourth time, I decided I was sick of living that way and knew I needed to make some changes,” he recalled.

And over the course of the past 10 weeks or so, he has made some, and, with the help of the large support network at the Goodwin House, Michael is ready to do something he was never ready to do before — live without drugs.

“I feel like I wanted to make a change — I just didn’t know how,” he said. “But then, I started second-guessing whether I wanted to make that change. I got through that second-guessing, but I’m addict; I’ll always want to use. But now, it’s a matter of what will happen if I use. Am I going to die? Am I going to have more legal issues?

“Now, I’m happy,” he went on. “Before, I didn’t have any emotion — I just got through the day. Now, I can take in the memories that I have; every day, something can happen, and it can turn into a good memory or a bad memory.”

When asked about the long term, Michael said he doesn’t think in such terms. In fact, he doesn’t even take things one day at a time.

“I’m locked in on thought-by thought, minute-by minute,” he explained, “because that last thought can bring you right back to where I was.”

Positive Steps

On Oct. 18, Michael will turn 18. As noted, he will then officially age out of Goodwin House. He’s hoping that his next short-term address will be a sober house, which will be what he called “another stepping stone on the journey to living without drugs.”

He admits to being somewhat nervous, but not scared.

“The way I was brought up was to always want more out of life, to achieve something greater than you’ve already achieved,” he explained. “I want to keep putting one foot in front of the other every day, because I don’t want to take one step forward and two steps back. I did that for such a long time … I don’t want to start this all over again.”

Getting to this point has been a long struggle, but Michael has found the will to change and keep moving forward. The Goodwin House has played a huge role in that, and the goal moving forward is to write more success stories like this.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

Deep Dive

Stacey Kronenberg (right), operations manager at Achieve TMS East

Stacey Kronenberg (right), operations manager at Achieve TMS East, demonstrates the dTMS technique with technician Sara Pittman.

With data in hand showing that its signature treatment — known as deep transcranial magnetic stimulation — has a strong track record in battling depression, Achieve TMS East has seen significant growth in the region. Now it has further reason to be excited, with the technique showing great promise in treating OCD.

Margie Pierce understands the difficulty — and, yet, the importance — of tackling the problem of depression.

“It’s the leading cause of disability worldwide right now,” said Pierce, a licensed clinical social worker and director of operations at Achieve TMS East, a fast-growing chain of behavioral-health practices that employ an innovative approach to treating depression known as deep transcranial magnetic stimulation, or dTMS.

“We’ve had people who were chronically depressed for 20 years have a fabulous response to this, and we’ve had people chronically depressed who have not had a great response,” she told BusinessWest. “We can’t pigeonhole people when they come in, whether they’re going to respond or you’re not. It’s kind of hit or miss, just like with medications. Some people respond to certain medications, and others don’t.”

That said, however, dTMS has proven remarkably effective in most people who undergo it — in many cases, people who have tried a seemingly endless string of medications and therapies with little success. That explains why the organization has grown to 11 offices across Western Mass., with broader geographic expansion planned.

“We can’t pigeonhole people when they come in, whether they’re going to respond or you’re not. It’s kind of hit or miss, just like with medications. Some people respond to certain medications, and others don’t.”

Deep transcranial magnetic stimulation, or dTMS, is a non-invasive technique that applies a series of brief magnetic pulses to the brain, by passing high currents through an electromagnetic coil placed adjacent to a patient’s scalp. The pulses induce an electric field in the underlying brain tissue and activates underactive areas in the brain associated with depression.

Dr. John Zebrun, senior medical officer with Achieve TMS East, said transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) was developed in Europe in the 1990s, and the first machine to receive FDA approval in the U.S. was the Neurostar machine, in 2008, which reached two to three centimeters into the brain, unlike dTMS — developed by an Israeli company called BrainsWay — which reaches six to seven centimeters in, and earned FDA approval in 2013.

“It enables you to get deeper into the brain tissue, so the volume of brain tissue is larger,” Zebrun told BusinessWest. “We don’t miss the target, ever, and there’s more stimulation in that area.”

The developers of the original TMS technique, he explained, wanted to discover if there were circuits or networks in the brain tissue they could stimulate to ease clinical depression. They targeted the left prefrontal area, which imaging scans suggested were underactive in patients with depression.

“The thought was to stimulate that area first and get it closer to a normal activity level, and that would help with depression — and it did. And that still is the primary target,” he said, noting that the device produces a magnetic field, not an electric current. “It’s getting groups of neurons in the circuit to fire together. As they get used to firing together, they’re more connected to each other.”

After a standard treatment of 36 sessions, he went on, those neurons become trained to fire normally. Treatment statistics show that 51% of patients who undergo the entire protocol get all the way to remission, while 75% get at least halfway to their goal. About one-third will need repeat, ‘booster’ treatments down the road, while two-thirds don’t.

Dr. John Zebrun says deep transcranial magnetic stimulation gets deeper into the brain than traditional TMS

Dr. John Zebrun says deep transcranial magnetic stimulation gets deeper into the brain than traditional TMS — and shows great promise for OCD as well.

In short, those are great numbers for a depression treatment, Zebrun said, and that success explains why Achieve has grown so rapidly across the region — and promises to become a more widely known name across the Northeast.

Long Time Coming

The breakthrough in TMS occurred in 1995, Zebrun said; that was when researchers first demonstrated that a magnetic field could stimulate the right neurons and get a response.

“So it’s been around a long time,” he said. “It varies from machine to machine, but they’re all operating within a certain range and certain power level to get the antidepressant effects.”

FDA approval was only one key development, however; insurances companies still needed to pay for the treatment if doctors hoped to reach a wide market. Medicare accepted it in 2015, and other payers soon came on board.

The FDA originally approved TMS for patients who had failed to find relief with another antidepressant treatment. “But insurance companies added extra layers, expecting to see about four medication and psychotherapy trials before they give this approval,” Zebrun said. “But a lot of people out there have already been through years of treatment and tried several medications.”

Dr. Thomas Bombardier, an ophthalmologist turned businessman, was involved with launching a chain of Achieve TMS businesses in California, Pierce told BusinessWest, and when he saw the benefits and how patients were responding out west, he decided to bring the model to his Western Mass. stomping grounds, teaming with two other owners to open Achieve TMS East.

Patients are referred to Achieve by their primary-care doctors, therapists, and psychiatrists, and some self-refer after hearing about the practice through social media or friends or family members.

“We’re very open to however they can get into the door to get the help they need,” Pierce said, noting that, while the majority of people who seek out tDMS are good candidates for it, some aren’t, due to medical contraindications, recent seizures, or even metal in the head that could heat up during the treatment. Everyone also gets a psychiatric consult to see if the treatment will be appropriate.

Stacey Kronenberg, operations manager at Achieve TMS East, demonstrated the dTMS technique for BusinessWest on Sara Pittman, a technician with the practice, although at a very low power level. Pittman put on a soft cap followed by the dTMS helmet, and Kronenberg set the device to a single-pulse mode, moving centimeter by centimeter until she found the motor area for Pittman’s hand, which twitched. From this process of ‘mapping,’ she could locate the right area to target for treatment.

The power setting isn’t uniform for each patient, and can be altered by the thickness of the skull, how much sleep the patient got the night before, even how much coffee they drank that morning. The process involves 36 ‘taps’ in two seconds as the neurons are stimulated, followed by a 20-second break, then another 36 taps in two seconds, then a 20-second break — a cycle repeated 55 times, totaling just over 20 minutes.

Initial treatments are run at lower power than later treatments to desensitize the patient to the sensation, which Pittman described as more of an annoyance — like a woodpecker tapping at her head — than anything. “It’s a tolerable discomfort,” Zebrun added. “I wouldn’t say it’s a breeze, but it’s tolerable.”

Margie Pierce

Margie Pierce says some people have come in after battling depression for 20 years — and finally found relief through dTMS.

Some patients pass the time by chatting with the technician, while others choose something to watch on Netflix, on the big TV hung on the wall beside the treatment chair.

“A lot of people, at the end, are like, ‘oh, I’m done already?’ They’re enjoying their conversation or their show,” Kronenberg said. “I think we should work for Netflix. A lot of people come in and are like, ‘I want to get Netflix.’”

That’s because they’re at the office often enough to binge a lot of TV — five days a week for six weeks, in fact, which is how long it takes to train the brain. “A lot of patients don’t want to leave when it comes to the end of their treatment,” she said. They tell us, “I’m so used to coming and seeing you. Who can I talk to now?’”

Beyond Depression

For starters, they can talk to their loved ones, in most cases, about how effective the treatment was. And depression isn’t the only use for dTMS. The FDA recently approved it as a treatment for obsessive compulsive disorder. In fact, dTMS has been successful in trials for OCD in ways that traditional TMS cannot be, because the target area of the brain is deeper than for depression.

“The surface coils [of TMS] would need so much energy to get that deep, it would hurt. The surface area would get too much stimulation rather than area you’re targeting, and you’d risk a seizure. That wouldn’t happen with dTMS,” Zebrun explained.

He said he hopes to reach people who don’t find standard cognitive treatment for OCD effective. “It can devastate one’s life. You can get wound up into some of these compulsions, or your mind can be so caught up and obsessed with obsessive thinking that you can’t focus on anything else. You can’t get through a planned project because there’s too many interruptions from your loops of thought that come in. There’s a wide range of those obsessions and compulsions.”

Even milder symptoms of OCD can really bother people, he added. “They wish they could get rid of these images popping into their head that started from nowhere and have no relation to anything in their lives and are disturbing to them.”

“They’ll say, ‘why wouldn’t you try this? What do you have to lose, except maybe your depression?’ … For most people, it’s going to help.”

Kronenberg also hopes dTMS makes an impact on the lives of these patients, noting that OCD is one of the most thorny issues that therapists tackle. And, much like depression, she added, OCD can be a “hidden” disease because there’s some stigma and shame associated with it.

But there shouldn’t be, Zebrun said, especially when something like dTMS exists, with its strong track record and its minimal side effects, which may include facial muscle contractions and headaches, which are both temporary. Fewer than one patient in 1,000 may experience a seizure — a risk similar to that of taking an antidepressant medication at the maximum dose.

Because it’s tolerable, he added, patients can do it before or after work, or during their lunch break, and return to their normal activities.

And maybe a normal life.

“People who for 20 years were depressed say it’s life-changing for them,” said Anita Taylor, marketing director at Achieve TMS East. “When we hear those kind of stories, we’ll ask them, ‘what would you say to someone thinking about this?’ They’ll say, ‘why wouldn’t you try this? What do you have to lose, except maybe your depression?’ It’s worth it to give it a try, go in wholeheartedly, and, for most people, it’s going to help.” u

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

In Search of Empathy

Catherine Williamson

Catherine Williamson says empathy is at the heart of the dementia-friendly movement.

Empathy is a quality America can always use more of — and that’s especially true, Catherine Williamson said, when it comes to families struggling with dementia.

“What attracted me to the dementia-friendly movement is being able to help individuals adjust to what’s going on in their lives,” she recently told a group of business leaders, who met for lunch at the Student Prince in Springfield for a presentation by the Springfield Dementia Friendly Coalition.

“It’s about empathy, and some of us are not great at being empathetic,” she went on. “Our lives are fast-paced, and we’ve got a lot going on — kids, jobs, husbands and wives, volunteering. We’ve got so much going on that, sometimes, we forget to stop and think about someone else not being able to move as fast as we can, or understand things the way we can.”

Williamson, a certified dementia practitioner and gerontologist with SilverLife Care at Home, said a goal of the dementia-friendly movement is to educate the community, and even the loved ones of people with dementia, about how daily experiences differ for individuals with that condition — everything from going to the library to visiting a doctor; from having a financial-planning meeting with an attorney to simply eating out at a restaurant.

To demonstrate, she led the lunch attendees in a virtual ‘dementia experience,’ in which participants use common objects to block or hinder their eyesight, hearing, range of hand motion, and other faculties, then try to communicate with each other — again, as a way to create empathy and reinforce the need for dementia-friendly changes in society.

“People with functional limitations are dealing with this constantly,” she said. “Imagine how much this impacts their daily lives, their relationships, getting around, even wanting to be out in the community. If you felt like this all the time, in this impaired state, you’d probably want to stay home, too. We need to think about how to make our communities and businesses and public spaces a little easier to navigate.”

The business leaders at the lunch shared their professional and personal experiences with dementia and learned about what it would mean to make Springfield a dementia-friendly community — a designation that an increasing number of Massachusetts cities and towns have been pursuing, one in which businesses, municipal departments, and other entities make a collective effort that help people who are memory-challenged to function in the community and live independently for as long as possible.

“Sometimes, we forget to stop and think about someone else not being able to move as fast as we can, or understand things the way we can.”

“What can we do as a community to improve the quality of lives?” asked Anna Randall of Greater Springfield Senior Services, one of the coalition members. “Being dementia-friendly means different things to different communities, depending on their populations and what resources they already have. We’re here to ask businesses what we can do to help your clients and make this community dementia-friendly.”

At a Loss

Nearly 5.1 million Americans age 65 and older are living with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, and the number is expected to reach 7.1 million in the next decade. Nearly 60% of people with dementia live in their own communities, and one in seven live alone, creating an urgent need, dementia-friendly advocates say, for communities to support people with dementia and their caregivers. 

Attendees of the recent Springfield Dementia Friendly Coalition

Attendees of the recent Springfield Dementia Friendly Coalition lunch underwent a virtual ‘dementia experience’ to get a small taste of what’s it’s like to navigate the world with cognitive impairment.

Meghan Lemay, regional manager in the Springfield office of the Alzheimer’s Assoc., said Alzheimer’s disease is a true epidemic, currently the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S. and the only major disease that has been increasing in incidence — by a 123% rate since 2000, in fact. At the same time, incidences of diseases like cancer and heart disease have been falling.

In addition, she noted, Alzheimer’s is the most expensive disease in America, expected to cost the healthcare system and caregivers some $277 billion in 2018 alone.

“It’s something we have to address on multiple fronts,” Lemay said. “We know it impacts families directly and has a significant emotional impact, but there’s also a significant financial impact for individuals and our communities.”

Springfield, in fact, is disproportionally affected, with a higher rate of dementia than other Massachusetts communities on average. Demographically, meanwhile, the condition affects African-Americans and Latinos at a higher rate than whites.

While individual communities seek the dementia-friendly designation, a state-level organization known as Dementia Friendly Massachusetts is supporting those efforts. On the community level, Randall noted, businesses who go through dementia-friendly training can then display that fact, “to say this company has gone the extra mile to show they care about their community and want to be more inclusive for people caring with dementia.”

“It’s something we have to address on multiple fronts. We know it impacts families directly and has a significant emotional impact, but there’s also a significant financial impact for individuals and our communities.”

Williamson noted that such steps by businesses could include modifying entryways, altering lighting, or changing the ways they interact with customers. And the changes don’t have to be dramatic. For example, a coffee shop in Boston became more dementia-friendly when it complemented its chalkboard menu with large-print menus at the register. “It’s little things like that — different types of things you can do.”

One attendee of the recent lunch in Springfield noted that some businesses have gone the opposite route, citing the increasing use of automated ordering kiosks at McDonald’s and the dominance of self-checkout lanes at Stop & Shop as two developments that can be problematic for certain individuals.

However, on the plus side, many restaurants have embraced the Purple Table training program designed to help visitors with dementia, autism, PTSD, hearing or vision impairment, or other conditions benefit from a more predictable environment and additional accommodations when dining out.

When families make a Purple Table reservation, participating restaurants provide accommodations that work best for that diner, along with extra patience and attention from staff who have been trained to understand different needs and how to best meet them. Those steps might differ depending on the visitor, but the underlying philosophy of empathy and understanding is the same.

Law and Order

The recent lunch gathering was funded by a dementia-friendly capacity-building grant from the Massachusetts Council on Aging under a service incentive grant from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs, allowing the coalition to hold focus-group meetings with local government and public officials, first responders, and members of the business community.

The goal is to make them aware of the issues facing individuals living with dementia, their friends, family, and care partners; to give an overview of the movement; and to elicit their thoughts and engagement in the initiative. In addition, the group will meet with those living with dementia and their care partners.

The coalition chair, Synthia Scott-Mitchell from Springfield Partners for Community Action, noted that “a dementia-friendly community is defined as one that is informed, safe, and respectful of individuals with dementia and their families, and provides supportive options for improved quality of life.”

But legislators can make a difference, too, and recently did, by passing a first-of-its-kind bill — subsequently signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker — that aims to make life a little easier for individuals with dementia and their families, through a multi-pronged approach.

More than 130,000 people are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease in Massachusetts, and being cared for by more than 337,000 family and friends. According to the Alzheimer’s Assoc., in 2018, Massachusetts will spend more than $1.6 billion in Medicaid costs caring for people with Alzheimer’s.

“Alzheimer’s is the single largest unaddressed public health threat in the 21st century, and we remain on the front lines of this crisis every day here in the Commonwealth,” said Daniel Zotos, director of Public Policy & Advocacy of the Alzheimer’s Assoc., Massachusetts/New Hampshire Chapter. “This legislation follows in the tradition of Massachusetts being a national leader in healthcare, and we commend the governor and Legislature for ensuring everyone impacted by Alzheimer’s gets the quality care and support they deserve.”

Among its mandates, the bill:

• Establishes a comprehensive state plan to address Alzheimer’s disease within the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, while also establishing a permanent advisory council to help coordinate government efforts and ensure that public and private resources are maximized and leveraged;

• Requires curriculum content about Alzheimer’s and other dementias be incorporated into continuing-medical-education programs that are required for granting the renewal of licensure for physicians, physician assistants, registered nurses, and licensed nurse practitioners;

• Ensures proper notification of an Alzheimer’s or dementia diagnosis to the family or legal guardian and provides information on available resources to both the patient and family;

• Requires state hospitals to implement an operational plan for the recognition and management of patients with dementia or delirium; and

• Establishes minimum training standards for social workers in elder protective services, to ensure protection from abuse and exploitation for elders with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Small Steps, Big Impact

When it comes to making communities more navigable and manageable for people with dementia, every effort helps, Williamson said, noting that the dementia-friendly movement also seeks to raise awareness — often through workplace presentations — of resources available to help families grapping with Alzheimer’s, when they’re not always willing to seek them out because of shame or stigma.

“If we go into your workplace and address your employees, we’re reaching folks that might need help,” she said. “It’s not just about doing the right thing for your customers, but also for your staff — folks who are taking care of their loved ones, but might not want to come forward.”

As the statistics show, those folks are legion. Increasingly, Williamson and her fellow coalition members hope, they are starting to find their communities a little friendlier, in some very important ways.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

‘We Are a Different Place’

Shriners Hospitals for Children – Springfield is in a much healthier place than it was nearly a decade ago, when its parent organization seriously considered shutting its doors. A move in 2011 to accept third-party insurance — although free care is still provided to those who need it — stabilized the national network, and canny decisions to introduce new services have helped the Springfield facility not only survive, but thrive and grow stronger: the same goal it has for each young patient.

George Gorton recalls a conversation he had with the parent of a child who nearly drowned — and then required months of intensive rehabilitation to regain full function, both physically and mentally.

Unfortunately, the only two pediatric inpatient rehabilitation units in Massachusetts are located in Boston.

“There was nowhere in Western Massachusetts to bring him back to maximum function level,” Gorton told BusinessWest. “She couldn’t transfer her family to live in Boston for two months to get the care she needed.”

That has changed, however, with last month’s opening of a new, 20-bed Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit at Shriners Hospitals for Children – Springfield.

“Now, everyone in Western Massachusetts who needs that kind of support can come here rather than figure out how to maintain their family 90 miles away,” said Gorton, the hospital’s director of Research, Planning, and Business Development. “It made sense; we had this excess capacity and didn’t need to do a lot of renovation work. It seemed like a natural fit, so we worked to get it set up.”

That excess capacity is due to a trend, increasingly evident over the past two decades, toward more outpatient care at Shriners — and hospitals in general. But despite the space being in good shape, it still needed to be converted to a new use and outfitted with the latest equipment, and that necessitated a $1.25 million capital campaign, which wound up raising slightly more.

George Gorton, left, and Lee Kirk

George Gorton, left, and Lee Kirk say long-standing support from Shriners, their families, and community members — reflected by this display in the lobby recognizing donors — has been a major reason why the hospital provides care regardless of ability to pay.

The new unit is an example of both the community support Shriners continues to accrue and the hospital’s continual evolution in services based on what needs emerge locally.

Specifically, Gorton said, the hospital conducts a community-needs assessment every three years, and out of the 2013 study — which analyzed market and health data and included interviews with primary-care providers and leaders in different healthcare sectors — came a determination that an inpatient pediatric rehab clinic would fill a gaping hole.

When H. Lee Kirk Jr. came on board as the facility’s administrator in 2015, he and his team honed that data further, spending the better part of that year reassessing the hospital’s vision and putting together a strategic plan. They determined that continued investment in core services — from neuromuscular care and cleft foot and palate to spine care and chest-wall conditions — was an obvious goal, but they also identified needs in other areas, from fracture care to sports medicine to pediatric urology, as well as the new rehabilitation unit.

“After a traumatic injury — a brain injury, serious orthopedic injury, it could be spinal injury — a child might have some functional deficits, even though they are not in a medically acute situation,” Kirk told BusinessWest. “So they come to this program and spend anywhere from two to eight weeks with intensive rehabilitative services, which is physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy, and also physician care and nursing care.”

Under the supervision of a fellowship-trained pediatric physiatrist, patients admitted to the unit will receive a minimum of 15 hours of combined physical, occupational, and/or speech therapy per week, added Sheryl Moriarty, program director of the unit. “Using an individualized, developmental, and age-appropriate program model, our Inpatient Rehabilitation team will manage medically stable children and adolescents with a variety of life-altering and complex medical conditions.”

That evolution in services makes it even more clear, Gorton said, that the landscape is far different than it was in 2009, when the national Shriners organization seriously considered closing the Springfield hospital.

“We’re stronger in every sense of the word,” he said, “from our leadership to the quality of the employees we have to the diversity of programs we have to the financial strength behind all this. We are a different place.”

First Steps

When a boy named Bertram, from Augusta, Maine, made the trek with his family to Springfield in February 1925, he probably wasn’t thinking about making history. But he did just that, as the hospital’s very first patient.

“While Shriners opened hospitals primarily to take care of kids with polio, Bertram had club feet,” Kirk said — a condition that became one of the facility’s core services.

After the first Shriners Hospitals for Children site opened in 1922 in Shreveport, La., 10 other facilities followed in 1925 (there are now 22 facilities, all in the U.S. except for Mexico City and Montreal). Four of those hospitals, including one in Boston, focus on acute burn care, while the rest focus primarily on a mix of orthopedics and other types of pediatric care.

As an orthopedic specialty hospital, the Springfield facility has long focused on conditions ranging from scoliosis, cerebral palsy, and spina bifida to club foot, chest-wall deformities, cleft lip and palate, and a host of other conditions afflicting the limbs, joints, bones, and extremities. But that’s the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

“This is along the lines of a community service, and our athletic trainers are working with school systems and private sports clubs in the community, to participate from a preventive point of view, but they certainly can attend games as a first responder and then follow up with treatment.”

“There’s some consistency in services, but each of the hospitals has adapted to the needs that present themselves in that community,” he went on, noting specialties like rheumatology, urology, and fracture care in Springfield, as well as a sports health and medicine program that brought on two athletic trainers and is currently recruiting a pediatric orthopedic surgeon with training in sports medicine.

“This is along the lines of a community service, and our athletic trainers are working with school systems and private sports clubs in the community, to participate from a preventive point of view, but they certainly can attend games as a first responder and then follow up with treatment.”

In all, more than 90% of care provided in Springfield is outpatient, reflecting a broader trend in healthcare, Kirk added. “We have always had, and still have, the only pediatric orthopedic surgeons in Western Massachusetts.”

Jennifer Tross stands in a hallway of the new Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit.

Jennifer Tross stands in a hallway of the new Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit.

After its clinical work, he noted, the second part of the Shriners mission is education. Over the past 30 years, thousands of physicians have undertaken residency education or postgraduate fellowships at the children’s hospitals.

“We have a lot of students here in a lot of healthcare disciplines, particularly two orthopedic residents who come on 10- to 12-week rotations from Boston University and Albany Medical Center. We have nursing students, nurse practitioners, physical and occupational therapists — a whole cadre of individuals.”

The third component of the mission is research, specifically clinical research in terms of how to improve the processes of delivering care to children. That often takes the shape of new technology, from computerized 3D modeling for cleft-palate surgery to the hospital’s motion-analysis laboratory, where an array of infrared cameras examine how a child walks and converts that data to a 3D model that gives doctors all they need to know about a child’s progress.

More recently, a capital campaign raised just under $1 million to install the EOS Imaging System, Nobel Prize-winning X-ray technology that exists nowhere else in Western Mass. or the Hartford area, which enhances imaging while reducing the patient’s exposure to radiation.

That’s important, Kirk said, particularly for children who have had scoliosis or other orthopedic conditions, and start having X-rays early on their lives and continue them throughout adolescence.

It’s gratifying, he added, to do all this in a facility decked out in child-friendly playscapes and colorful, kid-oriented sculptures and artwork.

“It’s truly a children’s hospital when you look around the waiting areas and the lobbies,” Kirk said, noting that ‘child-friendly’ goes well beyond décor, to the ways in which the medical team interacts with patients. “This is a happy place, and it’s a privilege for me to be part of such a mission-driven organization. I’ve been in this business for 35 years, and this is the most mission-driven healthcare organization I’ve ever been associated with — and I think others feel that way too.”

Joint Efforts

Jennifer Tross certainly does. She’s one of the newest team members, coming on board as Marketing and Communications manager earlier this summer. “I felt the commitment as I was being recruited here,” she said. “It’s an honor to be a part of it, really.”

It’s not that difficult to uphold the hospital’s mission when one sees the results, Kirk added.

“Our vision is to be the best at transforming the lives of children and families, and that’s what we look for every single day,” he told BusinessWest. “You see how their lives are transformed, and how, regardless of their situation, they’re treated like normal kids here. That helps them to evolve and have confidence to function normally at home, at school, and in their communities.”

There’s a confidence in the voices of the hospital’s leaders that wasn’t there nine years ago, following a stunning announcement by the national Shriners organization that it was considering closing six of its 22 children’s hospitals across the country — including the one on Carew Street.

“Our vision is to be the best at transforming the lives of children and families, and that’s what we look for every single day. You see how their lives are transformed, and how, regardless of their situation, they’re treated like normal kids here. That helps them to evolve and have confidence to function normally at home, at school, and in their communities.”

In the end, after a deluge of very vocal outrage and support by families of patients and community leaders, the Shriners board decided against closing any of its specialty children’s hospitals, even though the organization had been struggling — at the height of the Great Recession — to provide its traditionally free care given rising costs and a shrinking endowment.

To make it possible to keep the facilities open, in 2011, Shriners — for the first time in its nearly century-long history — started accepting third-party payments from private insurance and government payers such as Medicaid when possible, although free care is still provided to all patients without the means to pay, and the hospital continues to accommodate families who can’t afford the co-pays and deductibles that are now required by many insurance plans.

“That was a very good strategic move,” Kirk said, noting that, regardless of the change, 65% of the care provided last year to 11,501 children was paid for by donors, the Shriners organization, and system proceeds.

If a family can’t pay, he noted, the hospital does not chase the money, relying on an assistance resource funded by Shriners and their families nationwide. “One of the largest causes of personal bankruptcy is healthcare. It’s unfortunate that all healthcare can’t be delivered in the Shriners model. But I don’t disparage my colleagues — they don’t have a million-plus Shriners and their families around the world who are incredibly passionate about raising money to take care of kids.”

As a result of this model, “Shriners Hospitals for Children is a net $10 billion business with no debt. And one of the things we try to minimize is the support we require from system proceeds, other than our endowment,” he noted. “And we’ve been very successful here. It’s kind of an internal competition — which hospital requires the least support from the system.”

In the past three years, the Springfield facility has ranked second on that list twice, and third once. And that’s despite actually growing its services significantly. In 2016, Gorton said, the hospital grew its new patient intakes by 44%, followed by 26% the following year and a projected 20% this year. “So we serve a lot more children across the diverse set of services we provide.”

He noted that the outpouring of community support in 2009 — which included a sizable rally across the street — was an awakening of sorts.

“They said, ‘hell no, don’t go, we need you; stay here,’” he recalled. “Since then, we’ve done everything we could to identify what it was that the community wanted from us and recreate ourselves in that image. I think we’ve been largely — more than largely … exceptionally — successful on that.”

The hospital saw a lot of turnover in the years following 2009, Gorton added, “but the people who stayed are committed to the mission and vision of transforming children’s lives. The people who have joined us since then sense that the one thing we don’t compromise on is our mission and our vision.”

Best Foot Forward

When asked where the hospital goes from here, Kirk had a simple answer: Taking care of more children.

That means making sure area pediatricians, orthopedists, and hospitals are aware of what Shriners does, but it also means bolstering telehealth technology that allows the hospital not only to consult with, say, burn experts at the Boston facility, but to broaden outreach clinics already established in Maine, New York, and … Cyprus?

“We go to Cyprus every year — for 37 years now,” Kirk said of a connection the organization made long ago with the Mediterranean island. “We’ll see 300 kids in four days of the clinic, and over the course of a year, 10 to 20 will come to Springfield and stay in the Ronald McDonald House here while they receive care — typically surgical care.

“We’ve had an ancient telehealth connection with Cyprus, and we’re now updating that to the latest technology, so we can have telehealth clinics with Cyprus four to six times a year in addition to going over there,” he went on. So we’re going to focus on taking care of more kids.”

That is, after all, the core of the Shriners mission.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

A Different Kind of Health Crisis

Dr. Gaurav Chawla

Dr. Gaurav Chawla describes suicide as “a very unfortunate, tragic outcome of a complex set of circumstances.”

It’s a common, but certainly not universal, refrain when an individual takes his or her own life.

Friends and relatives will say they didn’t see any signs that this was coming, said Kate Hildreth-Fortin, program director, Emergency Service & Mobile Crisis Intervention with Behavioral Health Network (BHN). Or they’ll say that they could not see any apparent reason for this outcome, that the individual in question seemed outwardly happy and was enjoying life.

That’s what people said about celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, designer Kate Spade, comedian Robin Williams, and countless others, famous and not at all famous.

“But almost always, there are warning signs, and there are reasons,” said Hildreth-Fortin, one of many who spoke with BusinessWest about a subject that is timely, immensely complicated, and a true healthcare crisis probably on the same level as the one involving opioid addiction.

“If you think about the cost society pays due to undiagnosed mental-health conditions, due to emotional crises and stressors leading to loss of function and ultimately to suicide, and how many lives are directed affected by suicide … when you think about all that, this is a public health crisis.”

Timely not just because of those celebrity suicides several months ago — although they always help bring attention to the problem — and not just because of a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the growing problem.

It’s timely because the numbers continue to rise, as does the overall toll from suicide, which goes well beyond the individuals who take their own life, said Dr. Gaurav Chawla, chief medical officer at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital, part of Trinity Health Of New England, who estimated that six lives are directly impacted by each suicide.

“If you think about the cost society pays due to undiagnosed mental-health conditions, due to emotional crises and stressors leading to loss of function and ultimately to suicide,” he went on, “and how many lives are directed affected by suicide … when you think about all that, this is a public health crisis.”

Getting back to the numbers, they are eye-opening and quite alarming:

• The most recent surveys show there are 45,000 completed suicides in the U.S. every year;

• That number has steadily risen since the start of this millennium, with suicides up a total of 28% since 2000;

• Massachusetts has the third-lowest suicide rate in the nation, but the rate of suicides in the Bay State has increased 35% since 1999, well above the national average;

• Women attempt suicide at a higher rate than men, but men complete suicide at a higher rate than women;

• Firearms are used in more than 50% of suicide attempts;

• Middle-aged white men (those in their 40s to mid-50s) have the highest suicide rate, particularly when they are single, but there is another peak involving individuals over 84; and

• Among individuals ages 14-34, suicide is the second-leading cause of death after accidents.

Perhaps as disturbing and frustrating as the numbers themselves are the forces behind them. They are numerous, often difficult to see, and very difficult to combat.

But there are common denominators of a sort. For starters, suicide usually results from a combination of factors, not one in particular, said Chawla, who summed things up succinctly, noting that “there is never one reason for someone to take their life; suicide is a very unfortunate, tragic outcome of a complex set of circumstances.

Kate Hildreth-Fortin

In almost all cases, Kate Hildreth-Fortin says, there are warning signs with someone contemplating suicide.

“You will often see the assumption that undiagnosed mental illness or inadequately recognized or treated mental illness is the cause,” he went on. “However, that is a myth; 50% of the suicides do not have a diagnosed mental illness behind them.”

As for what is behind them, that list is obviously quite long, said Hildreth-Fortin, and could include biological and genetic factors, increasing stresses of life, relationship crises, financial and occupational stressors, poor coping styles, increased substance use, and many others.

Another common denominator is that those contemplating suicide generally feel trapped in a life that does not bring them happiness or make them fulfilled, said those we spoke with, adding that this descriptive phrase can be applied to people at every age, every income bracket, and every walk of life.

Slicing through it all, such individuals need a way out of that trap and can’t find one or are unwilling to try, said Chawla.

“Suicide is a confluence of circumstances that lead one to conclude that they’re trapped in a hopeless circumstance, sometimes without purpose, in a painful existence from which there is no other way out,” he told BusinessWest.

Meanwhile, providing a way out, especially to those suffering from behavioral-health issues (and that’s a large percentage of those who contemplate or complete suicide) is made more difficult by the persistent stigma attached to seeking help for such conditions, and then finding help in a system plagued by a shortage of resources.

These are the reasons why this is a healthcare crisis, even if the same politicians who are quick to give such a label to the opioid epidemic are mysteriously reluctant to do the same with suicide.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes a long, hard look at suicide, going beyond the numbers in a quest to explain why they continue to rise, and also looking at how area professionals are helping those who are in that aforementioned ‘trap’ and need a way out.

A Failure of the System

Hildreth-Fortin, like the others we spoke with, said that, while it is somewhat regrettable that it often takes celebrity suicides like Bourdain’s and Spade’s to bring heavy media attention to the problem of suicide, she’s happy for the attention and a chance to bring the conversations to the forefront, instead of the background, where they have been for too long.

That’s because a brighter light needs to be shone on this crisis to bring about any kind of change in the current trends. With that attention, she said, there is hope that the stigma attached to mental-health issues and seeking help for them might be diminished; hope that more resources might be brought to bear to address the crisis, as has happened with opioid addiction; hope that friends and loved ones might become aware of the warning signs — what to do when they see and hear them; and hope that those feeling trapped might be more persistent in finding a way out.

That’s a lot of hoping, but in this battle, those fighting it will take whatever help they can get, especially with regard to that stigma concerning mental health.

“Suicide is a word we use every day; it’s something we deal with every day,” said Hildreth-Fortin, whose program handles roughly 1,300 assessments a month, and 70% of these individuals, in her estimation, have suicidal thoughts. “There’s a lot we can do with prevention; we need to reduce the stigma, improve education, and treat suicide the same way we would diabetes — ‘what can we do to help someone?’”

Chawla agreed, and said the stigma attached to both suicide and mental illness and seeking help for it often contributes to a lack of understanding concerning why someone commits suicide.

That is certainly the case with celebrities such as Bourdain, Williams, and others, he went on, adding that, to most of the rest of the world, these people seem happy and content with their lives.

But it’s not the world’s perception of these individuals that matters; it’s how they view themselves, and this is true of people across all income levels and social strata.

“It’s about perceptions of who you are, how you fit in your world, and how meaningful you find your existence,” he said. “That’s what ultimately leads to or doesn’t lead to such acts.”

But while suicide is seemingly an individual act, it isn’t, and each act represents more than one person choosing that tragic outcome.

“Suicide is taken as one event by one individual, and that’s not what it is,” said Chawla. “It is the final outcome of the failure of the system. Along the way, there are many lives affected, there’s a lot of loss of function, and there is opportunity that’s missed.”

Hildreth-Fortin and others at BHN agreed, and said one huge key to perhaps reducing the number of suicides is to seize opportunities rather than miss them.

And there is quite a bit that goes into this equation, she noted, listing everything from proper training of police officers, teachers, and others to being aware of the many warning signs; from knowing what questions to ask those at risk (and asking them) to knowing how to respond to the answers to those questions.

And this means not overreacting or underreacting, and, above all, connecting people at risk with services that provide help, said Hildreth-Fortin, who, like Matthew Leone, assistant program director of the crisis unit at BHN, is trained in something called QPR, which stands for question, persuade, refer — the three basic steps in suicide prevention.

“This is training given to anyone in recognizing the risk factors, how to persuade the person to get help, and how to refer that person for help,” Leone explained, adding that, in his role, he does a lot of training in the community on how to recognize suicide.

Which brings him to those warning signs. There are many to watch for, some subtle, some most definitely not, he said.

“This is training given to anyone in recognizing the risk factors, how to persuade the person to get help, and how to refer that person for help”

They could and often do include people saying ‘goodbye’ or ‘nice to know you’ on Facebook and other platforms, individuals giving away possessions, young people suddenly drawing up a will, people losing interest in things they enjoy doing, a decrease in performance at school, and many others.

“A more overt sign might be when they start stockpiling medication or another means of following through on their plan,” Leone went on, adding that, in addition to these warning signs, which are clearly red flags, there are also risk factors.

And there are many of those, he said, starting with being a middle-age male. Others include financial distress, depression, divorce, loss of a job, being given a terminal diagnosis, and, of course, a combination of some of these.

Questions and Answers

The next part of the equation is knowing what to do when warning signs are recognized, or with someone who outwardly seems at risk, said Hildreth-Fortin.

She acknowledged that having a conversation with such an individual and asking the questions that need to be asked is awkward and often very difficult (some fear that just asking the questions can help promote a suicidal act) but it needs to be done.

“A big piece of QPR training is teaching people how to ask the question, to get someone comfortable with asking someone if they’re suicidal,” she said, adding that this training is often given to first responders and educators, but parents, spouses, friends, and employers also fall into the category of individuals who need to ask questions and need to know how to ask and also how to respond.

Questions should focus on what thoughts people are having, how often they’re having them, and whether they’ve acted on these thoughts in any way before, said Hallie-Beth Hollister, assistant program director, Community Relations for BHN, adding that the answers will generally reveal just how at-risk someone might be.

Jenni Pothier

Jenni Pothier says those working with those contemplating suicide need to create a comfortable, non-judgmental, open space for dialogue to occur.

One key, she went on, is not asking leading questions that would enable the individual to give the answers the questioner might be looking for.

“Don’t say, ‘you’re not thinking of killing yourself, right?’” she said by way of example.

But, as noted, recognizing warning signs and asking the right questions are only parts of the equation. Responding to the signs and the questions to the answers is another big part, said Leone, adding that that many people balk at asking questions, or especially difficult and specific questions, because of anxiety about the answer.

“‘What do I do if the answer is yes?’” is a question that unnerves many, he went on, adding that there’s a reason for this; the response can be complex.

“We talk with people all day who mention that they’ve having suicidal thoughts,” he explained. “Some have the intent to follow through, others do not; some have vague suicidal ideation where there’s no real plan to it.”

Which is why overreaction is possible and should be avoided.

“Many times, with suicide, when someone says they’re having those thoughts, instead of starting a conversation, it ends the conversation,” he explained. “People will jump in and say, ‘we need to get them to the hospital, we need to get them help now,’ when the person is just reaching out to talk about it for help.

“And this overreaction can have a negative effect to it because then the next time the person is experiencing those thoughts, they may not say anything,” he went on, adding that the key is generating the proper response given the individual’s risk factors, warning signs, the strength of the connections in his or her life, and other factors.

Jenni Pothier, director of the Tenancy Preservation program for Springfield-based Mental Health Associates, agreed. In the course of her work, which involves helping individuals who are at risk of homelessness — a stressful situation to say the least — the subject of suicide often comes up.

“Because we know that suicide includes risk factors like poverty, experiencing potential homelessness, and a lack of access to resources, people are in crisis,” she explained. “So we’re assessing people regularly for suicide.”

And those assessments involve asking those questions mentioned above, asking them in an effective way, and responding in the appropriate manner.

“As practitioners and clinicians in the community, you need to create comfortable, non-judgmental, and open spaces for dialogue to occur,” she explained, “so people can express to you how they’re feeling without the fear of the stigma or that you’re going to instantly call 911 to get them hospitalized if they say they’re contemplating suicide or having suicidal ideations.”

Bottom Line

As she talked with BusinessWest about suicide and, more specifically, the problems many have with asking the questions that must of asked of someone at risk, Hildreth-Fortin related the story about an educator who, during a QPR training session, admitted not only that she would have difficulty asking such questions, but also that she would be upset if someone put those questions to her child.

“I had a real hard time responding to her, because it spoke so greatly to the stigma attached to this,” she said. “If your child had a stomach ache, you wouldn’t have a problem with him going to the nurse. You talk about what hurts, what kind of pain it is … we have to treat suicide the same way we would any medical symptom. We have to talk about it.”

It will take a confluence of factors and a great deal of resources to reverse the current trends on suicide, but getting people to talk about it and respond to the talk is the big first step, said Chawla, adding that only by doing so can those missed opportunities he mentioned become real opportunities to do something about a true healthcare crisis.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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