Wilmington's hospitals come together to provide better care and access

July 09, 2007
Nine years ago New Hanover Regional Medical Center trustee Luther Brown announced the pending purchase of Cape Fear Hospital by declaring, “there are times in life when people and organizations are faced with tremendous opportunities. This is one of those times.”

It was a time when the county’s public hospital was struggling to keep pace with the region’s booming population. NHRMC didn’t have enough operating rooms or patient beds to meet the demand. Construction plans were on the table, but any easing of the space shortage would be several years away.

Across town at Cape Fear Memorial Hospital, the situation was very different. The hospital had an average daily census of only 38 patients and several operating rooms were essentially sitting empty. The for-profit healthcare chain, Columbia HCA, had been running the hospital for two years, but was ready to sell.

“There was much dialogue about the sale of the hospital and who the prospective buyer(s) may be,” recalls Janet Toedt, RN, who was working at Cape Fear at the time. “It was finally announced that NHRMC was one of the interested buyers. The feeling of relief felt by the staff was almost palpable. The hospital would not close! Our jobs were secure and we would be returning to a community based not-for-profit status.”

The futures of Cape Fear and New Hanover Regional were officially tied when the purchase was completed in November 1998.

The merger of the former rivals meant services could be streamlined and consolidated in ways that weren’t previously possible. The network worked with local orthopedic surgeons to develop an orthopedic specialty center at Cape Fear.

By moving the service to Cape Fear, they could provide physicians and patients more access to operating rooms and recovery areas. Physicians, in return, got together to standardize their procedures, forms and equipment.

“It helps patient access because it makes us more efficient,” explained Orthopedic Steering Committee Chairman Doug Messina, MD. “We can do more cases in the same amount of time. The operating room staff, nurses on the floor, and the physical therapists are working with the orthopedic physicians every day, doing the same procedures.”

In 2005, The Cape Fear Orthopedic program was named in the Top 5 percent nationally for Total Hip and Knee Replacement and in the Top 10 percent nationally for Orthopedic Care, according to a national ranking service.

Spurred in part by the orthopedic move to Cape Fear, the facility has seen a steady growth in the numbers of patients served there. Since 1998, the number of inpatient surgeries performed is up 65%, outpatient surgeries are up almost 89%, and emergency department visits have increased 53%.

The merger has also helped improve access to radiology services at Cape Fear Hospital. “Without the merger, I don’t think we would be where we are today,” said Terry Gentry, Cape Fear Radiology Manager. “There has been a huge capital outlay.” Cape Fear now has a new 16-slice CT scanner, a dual-headed nuclear medicine camera, and a multipurpose room geared to orthopedic procedures.

“All you have to do is walk the halls and see the numbers of patients using the facility to sense that it (the merger) has been a good thing,” said Cape Fear Site Administrator Donna Bost.