Brand new old hospital

Soon under new leadership, Gridley’s “medical home” gets contemporary overhaul

Tracy Atkins, Orchard Hospital’s chief nursing officer and chief operating officer, says that “we’re a new hospital.”

Tracy Atkins, Orchard Hospital’s chief nursing officer and chief operating officer, says that “we’re a new hospital.”


Meet the new boss:
Steve Stark becomes Orchard Hospital’s chief executive officer Jan. 1.
• Age 40
• Missouri native
• Bachelor’s degree, business, Drury University (Mo.)
• Master’s degree, health care administration, Bellevue University (Neb.)
• CEO, Palmer Lutheran Health Center (Iowa)
• Fifteen years of professional experience
• Married (wife Jennifer); four children (Landon, Emily, Jenna, Zoie)

“It’s not your grandma’s hospital anymore.”

That’s how John Harris, chairman of the board at south Butte County’s medical center, encapsulates far-reaching changes over the past few years at his hometown’s venerable institution.

Most conspicuous is the name: Biggs-Gridley Memorial Hospital is now called Orchard Hospital.

The facilities have undergone facelifts, giving both the main hospital and rural health clinic a more contemporary look.

The most significant differences, though, may be less apparent. The board, foundation and administration agreed to invest heavily in updating particular pieces of equipment, most notably for diagnosing and monitoring patients, while following the government mandate of converting to electronic health records. In addition, the organization adopted a new operational philosophy, the Studer model, which emphasizes (among other things) customer service in health care.

So, when Harris thinks of the hospital whose board he joined 40 years ago, soon after setting up his law practice in Gridley, he says: “It really is brand new in an old building.”

Orchard Hospital just recently announced another major change: the hiring of a top administrator. Steve Stark, chief executive officer of a comparably sized medical center in Iowa, will take the reins from Orchard interim CEO Jim Opdahl at the start of 2015.

Stark happens to be a “Studer Champion”—trained in implementing the system Orchard has chosen. He did so at his current hospital, Palmer Lutheran Health Center, where he also oversaw expansions in facilities and services.

Speaking by phone from Iowa, Stark said one of his first projects will be to expand Orchard’s emergency department. Overall, he wants to ensure that the hospital doesn’t find itself in the same situation it faced around 2000, when it merged with the Rideout system in Marysville/Yuba City. Gridley regained control in 2009.

“My goal would be to keep it independent as long as possible,” Stark said. “I think we need to strengthen our financial position; we have to get physicians who admit [specifically to the hospital], and we have to keep our skills at the highest possible level while maintaining [a positive] patient experience.

“Often hospitals our size affiliate when they have to…. Things would have to get really bad for that to be an option on the table for the board to approve again.”

Stark sees encouraging signs, such as the recent investment in diagnostic services and outpatient care—coming during a period of growth in demand for emergency services.

Tracy Atkins, Orchard’s chief nursing officer and chief operating officer, says the ER’s traffic has nearly doubled in three years, going from 500-550 patients a month in 2011 to 800-900 a month currently. Thus, the need for an expansion—and one of the reasons Stark said he’s “counting down the days” until he assumes his new role.

Serving a rural small town, Orchard is considered a critical-access hospital, which affords it government support but also limits its size. It has 45 beds total (24 of which are in-patient).

Harris sees an opportunity for Orchard to serve as “a boutique hospital.” If, for instance, a patient needs to get more specialized treatment at a larger hospital, he or she then will come back for follow-up care. “I’d like this to be a place they feel is their medical home,” he said.

Atkins agrees. Orchard brings in specialists for weekly visits. Not all specialties are covered, though, and not all patients can match the schedule. By expanding the offerings for diagnostics—such as imaging and cardiac stress tests—community members can get tests locally even if they need to travel for other appointments.

The medical center now has a mobile MRI unit and mobile CT scanner. It added a new radiology table, plus ultrasound, mammography and DEXA (bone-density) equipment. All heart monitors and vital-sign monitors were replaced.

The list goes on.

“The community has invested a lot into our facility,” Atkins said. “There’s been a lot of investment in equipment and upgrades and just making this a nice place for patients to want to come to have their care.”

Amid all the changes came the idea for a new name, which the hospital unveiled in 2013. It met with some resistance—residents of Biggs and Gridley were (and are) instrumental in keeping their community-supported hospital alive, so why strip their towns from its title?

“We have a lot of competition around here,” Atkins explained. “We provide a service to this community, but we didn’t want to shortchange ourselves if there was a niche service that we can offer here as far out in surrounding communities as we possibly could….

“For us, it was fresh, it was a clean slate, and it gave us the opportunity to feel like, with all the new changes that we made and all the upgrades we made, that we’re a new hospital. We had an opportunity to put on a new face and ask people to try us again—or try us for the first time again.”