Steve Heatherly


By Beth Lawrence


Harris Regional Hospital is celebrating the anniversary of a partnership that hospital executives say has helped them bring better care to Western North Carolina.

Five years ago, Harris reached out to Duke LifePoint in an attempt to expand the care it was able to bring to local residents.

“The past five years have been years of growth and a lot of forward momentum in terms of how our hospitals serve communities and the services we offer,” said Steve Heatherly, president and CEO of Harris. “We are excited about continuing that success expanding our service lines recruiting, more physicians.”

Harris Regional Hospital and Swain County Hospital (WestCare) had served Jackson and Swain counties for more than 90 years as what Heatherly calls a “hub for health care for the very western counties” of the state.

In order to maintain and expand the types of care Harris was able to offer, hospital executives decided to look at other operations and partnerships across the state that might be beneficial.

“We began doing an analysis about seven years ago, and at that time we started a process to look at what were options around a sustainable model going forward for our hospitals,” Heatherly said. “We reached out to Duke LifePoint and others in understanding their models and ultimately our board chose Duke LifePoint.”

Duke LifePoint Healthcare is a collaboration of Duke University Health System and LifePoint Health, a healthcare company. As Duke LifePoint, the two partner with hospitals and healthcare providers to extend healthcare services to the public, according to the group’s website.

The partnership relies on Duke’s experience with patient care and LifePoint’s experience operating hospitals.

Duke LifePoint pledged to invest $43 million over eight years in Harris and Swain hospitals. Heatherly estimates that much more than that has been invested in both counties’ health.

That investment has meant keeping health care local for residents and growth in terms of the kind of care Harris is able to offer.

“What we try to do is figure out the services we can and should offer that allow people to get their healthcare as close to home as possible removing barriers to that so they don’t have to travel,” Heatherly said. “Our mission is making communities healthier, so it’s been a good five years of doing that.”

Harris has constructed a new emergency department and a new labor and delivery unit, the New Generations Family Birthing Center, and added a C-section suite.

The new maternal health unit benefits more than just Jackson residents, Heatherly said, pointing to the closing of Angel Medical Center’s labor and delivery unit in Macon County in 2017.

“We really look at things by service lines so things like women’s and children’s services, cardiology, orthopedics, oncology; in all of our major service lines we’ve been able to experience significant expansions both in terms of the number of providers, technology and the services we offer,” Heatherly said.

The hospital is looking to add a neonatal intensive care unit and investing in more women’s and children’s services in the future.

Work has also begun on the oncology center and should be completed in early 2020.

The hospital already has a radiation treatment unit. The construction project expands on the services already there and replaces all of the clinical equipment.

Heatherly estimates that 20 to 30 percent of treatment that should be delivered locally cannot be done with current equipment, but a new linear accelerator allows them to treat certain types of cancer and cancer in some areas of the body that Harris’ doctors could not previously treat.

New imaging equipment at the cancer center allows doctors to find cancerous lesions that they could not before. Patients would have had to travel to larger hospitals for access to that equipment.

The hospital has also expanded cardiac care, bringing in doctors and technology that was previously only available in Haywood or Buncombe counties.

Harris has added two cardiologists and will be bringing in two cardiac nurse practitioners.

“Dating back to 2015-16 we had pretty limited cardiology services here,” Heatherly said. “We have significantly increased the number of cardiology patients we serve. Two years ago we did the first diagnostic catheterization at Harris. Probably by this time next month will have done our first cardiac intervention, which is stinting and those types of procedures.”

Access to more doctors, tests, procedures and a “high level of care” have raised health outcomes “across the board,” Heatherly said.

Having access to qualified physicians and services locally improves a patient’s odds of recovery and helps to alleviate the stress of facing a medical issue because time and money will not be expended on travel to places with larger better equipped facilities.

“When people have to travel outside of their local community, it does present them with expenses that they wouldn’t otherwise have to incur,” Heatherly said. “In some cases it may mean that they just may not get the treatment they need because the barriers are too great; that issue of removing barriers for people to get healthcare and not having them make choices between traveling versus the money they may need to spend on medications ... on food; we want to make all of that as much better as we can.”

Other measures the facility has introduced are digital mammography, surgical cystoscopy system, fall prevention safety monitoring system and a new telemetry monitoring system for inpatient care.

Harris is also investing in helping the community with preventative health measures.

The hospital provides athletic trainers to local high schools as part of its sports medicine program.

It also partners with local companies to promote wellness.

“Wellness Manager Chelsea Burrell designs customized programs for our community partners,” Heatherly said. “We work with area school systems and other businesses so that we can help their employees realize a healthier lifestyle. We’re going to continue to look for opportunities to do things like that that go beyond just the provision of health care.”