‘Little Hospital’ an engine of sustainability

OBSERVER Photo Rodney Buchanan, Westfield Memorial Hospital administrator, and Helen Baran, chairwoman of the board of directors, stand near a sign highlighting honors in front of the facility.

WESTFIELD — Sitting before the entrance to a proud health-care facility on East Main Street is a wooden train bearing the slogan, “The Little Hospital That Could.” It speaks to a resiliency and determination by a board of directors, about 90 staff members and the dedication of 13 communities on the southwestern end of Chautauqua County.

Westfield Memorial Hospital is not only maintaining in an unstable era of health care, it is growing while meeting the needs of those it serves. That is a much different scenario than what many would have expected some 16 years ago when the state’s Berger Commission — a task force formed to look at health care across the state — issued its report.

Berger’s determinations in 2007 have had a lasting impact on hospitals in Chautauqua County. Not long after the findings were released, WCA Hospital in Jamestown teamed with Hamot in Erie, Pa., and UPMC to better serve its population. TLC in Irving, also known as Lakeshore, attempted to work closely with Brooks Memorial in Dunkirk in a relationship that was far from harmonious.

Westfield, however, appeared to be on an island — and living on borrowed time. Helen Baran, chairwoman for the hospital’s board of directors, understood the target that Berger had placed on the facility close to her heart at that time.

Instead of writing an epitaph, she and other leaders went to battle. “We had to fight a war to survive. … People don’t understand rural areas,” Baran said, later noting, “you’re a rural hospital when the deer population outweighs the people.”

Baran and other board members began exploring ideas outside the box — and beyond state boundaries. In doing so, they found a willing partner in Saint Vincent Hospital in Erie, Pa. Later, when Allegheny Health Network acquired Saint Vincent in 2013, Westfield was included in the deal.

“With that partnership and ownership comes a lot of financial stability,” said Rodney Buchanan, Westfield Memorial administrator. “To be honest with you, that’s the key piece to what keeps us alive … (by) being able to have that strong financial connection and that connection to resources whether it be capital, positions or nursing staff.”

Though he’s been at the location for a little more than a year, Buchanan is more than just a manager. Overseeing a smaller operation means being more hands on. His background in nursing allows him to assist in the emergency room or other areas when patient numbers are high.

He also has been more than willing to help in maintenance. Last January, during a forecasted snowstorm, Buchanan helped plow the parking lot due to other staffers being out with COVID.

“The rural health piece is becoming more critical across the country as the health-care environment changes,” Buchanan said. “I really think COVID put a huge spotlight on your rural hospital health system. … The country is finally realizing the rural health care system is your basics … that’s what provides you your chronic disease management, your primary care, your emergency care at a moment’s notice.”

It also is a first line of defense before taking care to the next level, which often occurs at larger health centers whether it be in Erie, Buffalo or Cleveland. During Buchanan’s tenure, AHN has been investing in improvements to better the lives of the nearly 50,000 residents being served. Some of those services include: cardiac ultrasound, a nuclear medicine camera, infection control done by an ultraviolet robot to perform the final cleaning of a room, phlebotomy and telehealth services. A new mammogram and dexa scanner for bone density also are expected to be installed by the end of the year.

Buchanan and Baran noted it is a “heart first” attitude that allows for those recent improvements at the location. Both also discussed the high-quality emergency room that operates 24 hours, seven days a week, an inpatient population of four beds and a 2021 Guardian of Excellence Award for being ranked in the top 5% of health-care organizations for patient experience.

These upgrades and honors are being overseen by a 16-member board. It includes representation from each of the towns and villages that are served.

Monica Lewis, spokeswoman with Allegheny Health Network, said Westfield’s model fits perfectly with the organization’s mission of improving health and promoting wellness in its communities. “They’re committed to keeping care local,” she said. “All the new technologies were designed so residents from your area do not have to drive into Erie or Pittsburgh to have their medical needs met. … AHN’s commitment to keeping care local is really positively impacting the residents of Western New York.”

John D’Agostino is the editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com


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