Ballad planning to make changes to regional trauma care

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL)- Executives at Ballad Health are preparing for a major announcement that could impact where you go if you suffer a traumatic injury.

The only provider of hospital care in the region currently hosts two level one trauma centers, in Johnson City and Kingsport, even though there are only six of these in the entire state of Tennessee.

Comparably, major cities like Nashville only have one level one facility, serving a much larger population.

“There is such an oversupply of trauma capacity here that really has diverted resources from services that are needed. That has become clear with the data and the evidence,” Alan Levine, Ballad Health chairman and chief executive officer, said in an interview Monday, prefacing the board’s decision on how to realign trauma services to better serve the region’s needs.

Executives said duplication of facilities dilutes limited resources.

They said this infrastructure is left over from when the two major hospital systems in our region, Mountain States Health Alliance and Wellmont Health Systems, were fierce competitors.

“You would never get us to collaborate on trauma,” said Levine, referencing this era of competition.

When the two merged as Ballad Health, they agreed to strict government oversight to ensure this “first-of-its-kind” model would be beholden to the public.

“If you go back to what we said at the beginning of the merger discussion, we wanted to eliminate unnecessary duplication of resources. And reinvest those dollars into things that actually create value for the region,” said Levine.

They say realigning trauma resources will be their latest effort to make good on that promise.

“I think it’s safe to say that we will have an enhanced regional trauma network that is second to none in the United States,” said Ballad Health Executive Vice President & Chief Clinical Officer Jerry Blackwell.

They say this realignment of care will help address current problems, such as inconsistent physician coverage at both level one facilities.

“You can be a level one and not provide all of the services consistently that you’re supposed to provide and there’s been circumstances where both level one trauma centers have failed to do that in the past,” said Levine.

A facility with a level one trauma center classification is meant to have surgeons and specialists staffed around the clock, to deliver the highest level of care to the severely injured.

Executives maintain that realigning trauma resources will not stunt access to emergency services.

Level one trauma centers are also supposed to spearhead preventative research and outreach, which executives admit hasn’t been done to the fullest extent in the past.

“A very big proportion of our trauma is preventable and we need to spend more time and resources as a system of care trying to get at the cause of trauma,” said Levine.

But they said one of the most glaring deficits in our region is the lack of a pediatric trauma center. The nearest is about an hour and a half away, University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville.  

Levine said this travel is a hardship for families: “Treating illness is more about treating a disease or an illness. It’s about providing the full spectrum of support for the family.”

Blackwell explained this shift will allow the community to have more efficient access to top specialists. “So this is not something that’s creating a stir in the medical community, in fact, exactly the opposite, it’s the way we’ve really always wanted to do business,” he said.

Executives said they also plan to consolidate helicopter resources. They said having two separate services is “unheard of.”

They also assured whatever changes are announced will not happen overnight. They expect a year-long consultation and implementation process to follow.

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