Have you ever wondered about what living here without a local hospital would be like? It’s not a pleasant prospect. The closest hospitals are a 20- to 30-minute ride away, and that’s added to whatever time the arrival of an ambulance requires. Not every health event is a matter of life or death, but in a valley where the average age is steadily increasing, life-saving medical care is increasingly vital.
Our local Sonoma Valley Hospital (SVH) has been able to survive due to the generosity and sensible thinking of the community, which has repeatedly voted in favor of a parcel tax that helps support the hospital’s finances. It’s a clear indication that the residents of the Valley appreciate the availability of local healthcare, and want it to continue. As most of us know by now, law dictates that an emergency department cannot exist alone without the attendant hospital services and facilities; they go hand in hand.
In addition, the current availability of local physicians would be hugely affected by the loss of our local hospital. Doctors want to practice medicine in a place where their patients can receive treatments, get diagnostic tests, and have lab work done. Having a local hospital means continuing to have local doctors.
From what we can discern, the quality of care and level of services now available at SVH are greatly improved. Thanks to capital campaigns by the Hospital Foundation there has been an upgrade of facilities and equipment; and the hospital’s association with UCSF brings rigorous oversight and world-class specialists on call. While some in-depth medical services are not provided, such as a cardiac unit with intensive care, SVH can and does stabilize heart patients and prepare them for transfer to other hospitals with those facilities. SVH has a stroke care certification; and stroke patients are linked directly with UCSF neurologists via Telehealth.
Small hospitals have closed their doors all over California. The complexities of managing and collecting on private health insurance payments and Medicare, and the underpayment by MediCal, plus treating the uninsured, all pose a continuous challenge. The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are still reverberating; the stress of long hours, the requirement of precautionary protective clothing and masks, and huge patient caseloads has resulted in staffing shortages, placing even more pressure on smaller hospitals. That SVH has survived is a near miracle.
It’s probable that SVH will need more financial help in the future. Meeting the medical needs of Valley residents means keeping up with the latest in healthcare trends and technology, all of which are costly and time-consuming. Imaging equipment is tremendously effective, and terribly expensive; it creates new access to UCSF specialists and a potential revenue stream. Expanding services at the hospital should be based upon the analysis of current needs and projections about healthcare needs in the future.
Demographic changes in the Valley’s resident population, the effects of independent urgent care facilities, the composition of physicians in private practice catering to family care, gerontology, and specialties, and the availability of staffing will all have an impact on our hospital. In addition to the hospital’s ongoing meetings with the public, the City of Sonoma, Sonoma County, and SVH should be conferring with each other about what’s needed now and will be needed going forward.
Perhaps that means expanded mental health services. Perhaps a transition to a teaching facility. Sonoma Valley Hospital’s survival depends on its ability to adapt to the changing landscape of medical care, locally, regionally, and nationally.