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'There's more need': St. Vincent Healthcare announces Level I Trauma Center plan, expansion of services

Plan includes Wyoming's only hospital-owned flight program
Ambulances and helicopters from St. Vincent Healthcare
Posted at 5:49 PM, Apr 04, 2023

BILLINGS — St. Vincent Healthcare announced Tuesday its plan to become a certified Level I Trauma Center by early 2024, which includes an expansion of services.

The announcement was made at 10:30 a.m. at the Edwards Jet Center in Billings, located at 2400 Overlook Dr. Representatives from the hospital's owner, Intermountain Healthcare, Miles City-based Holy Rosary Healthcare, and Wyoming-based Cody Regional Health spoke about the new changes.

“We gathered today to share the exciting news on our Level I Trauma pursuit at St. Vincent Healthcare, and also to share some exciting programmatic updates," said Jen Alderfer, the president of St. Vincent Healthcare and the Montana-Wyoming market for Intermountain Health, on Tuesday. "Like launching a ground transportation program, and a joint-ventured, hospital-owned flight program in partnership with Cody Regional Health located in Cody, Wyoming, called First Flight of Wyoming."

A new inter-facility ground ambulance service will provide transportation between Montana and Wyoming and will begin this month. Cody Regional Health and St. Vincent have also partnered to launch First Flight of Wyoming, Wyoming's only hospital-owned flight program that will launch this summer.

Alderfer told MTN News the hospital network has a long history of providing high-level trauma services and is excited to expand those services to areas that are in desperate need.

"As our communities are growing, we sense an opportunity to meet that growing need. Also, in the area of trauma care, we recognize that time from injury to treatment is critical. And the more you shorten that, the better the outcomes are for the patient impacted," Alderfer said. "So these services are really just a reflection of our desire to continue to provide life-saving treatment for our neighbors and our friends in Wyoming and Montana, and any visitors who might come to our great states."

And Barry McKenzie, the trauma medical director and a trauma surgeon at St. Vincent, agrees that the time from injury to treatment can be a leading factor in the patient's recovery.

"With the nearest Level One Trauma Center being nearly 600 miles away, if we can keep folks closer to home, that’s better for the patient. It’s better for the family. It’s less expensive, if we want to talk about dollars and cents, because we can keep them here," McKenzie told MTN News on Tuesday. "If that person is 600 miles away, that’s a big burden on the patient and family. And so if we can do those things closer to home, it overall is just a better situation for the patient."

But now, thanks to these new services, distance is becoming less of a barrier to healthcare access in Montana and Wyoming.

"In general, we’ve been providing level-one trauma care for a long time. We don’t send a lot of patients to other places. We want to minimize that number as much as we can," McKenzie said. "We want to be a resource within the region even more than we already are."

Along with these new services, the hospital is simultaneously working to achieve its Level I Trauma Center status. It believes improving its education and research will lead to certification. Level I Trauma Centers are designated by the American College of Surgeons and given to comprehensive care facilities with a large patient capacity and the ability to treat trauma patients while providing care to critically ill or injured patients.

"(We're) creating a research department and starting to come up with what unique things we could really focus on, being a rural facility that takes care of a very high level of trauma. We have a lot to share with national organizations, such as the American College of Surgeons, that say, 'This is what the unique aspects are of rural trauma care,' and starting to engage general surgery residents," McKenzie said. "And so, yes, that helps out with trauma. But also, there’s going to be a 3,000 general surgery shortage by 2026. And so some of those kinds of things will attract new physicians to the state of Montana to help fill those gaps. Not only in a size of a Billings community but also in a rural setting. And on top of that, expanding our trauma department so that we can do more injury prevention education. We can do more education to providers in smaller facilities. So really, it's being not only a leader but also, and more importantly, really be a resource for other places here locally and throughout the state."

According to McKenzie, St. Vincent recently started a general surgery residency program in collaboration with St. Joseph Hospital in Denver and is working on educating the next generation of surgeons.

Another Montana healthcare system is also trying to achieve the Level I Trauma Center certification—Billings Clinic. Despite budget cuts, hospital representatives say it started a campaign to raise $30 million to reach Level I Trauma Center status.

McKenzie stated St. Vincent applied to become a Level I Trauma Center in August 2022, the first hospital in Montana to do so. According to a written statement from a representative from Billings Clinic, the hospital has also applied for designation.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, overall employment of physicians and surgeons is only projected to grow nationwide by 3% between 2021 to 2031, which is slower than the average for all occupations. This rate underscores some of the staffing challenges St. Vincent will face in its efforts to expand and achieve the new designation.

“It’s a big project. This is not something that we just check some boxes and fill out. This is something that’s been in the works for years,” McKenzie said. “The next step is to become the highest level center you can become in the country. And that involves research, residents, resources, education within the region, locally as well."

A big project—but St. Vincent believes it's worth it.

When asked how much the designation would cost, St. Vincent officials declined to provide a figure.

"We understand what is needed in order to complete this journey successfully. For years, we have been investing in resources and services that have allowed us to provide our region with the highest level of trauma and lifesaving care. We are fully committed to meeting the healthcare needs of the communities we serve," St. Vincent leadership said in a written statement.

To learn more about St. Vincent Healthcare, click here.

To learn more about First Flight of Wyoming, click here.

“I think the last thing I would like to share, is just heartfelt gratitude for the community that trusts us at St. Vincent, and trust Intermountain Health across Montana to provide care for them," Alderfer, the St. Vincent president, said. "We take our commitment to providing safe, personalized patient care seriously. And that’s who we are and what we do, and we look forward to doing that in the days to come."