WESTERLY — The number of physicians and assistants available to work in the Westerly Hospital Emergency Department has increased as part of the facility's move away from contracting for emergency services.

As of June 1 the hospital's emergency department providers are hospital employees. They were previously employed by US Acute Care Solutions, a private company based in Canton, Ohio, with operations across the country.

Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London and the Pequot Health Center in Groton, which along with Westerly Hospital make up part of the L+M Healthcare network, made the switch on April 1. L+M Healthcare was acquired by Yale New Haven Health in 2016.

"We increased physician staffing and physician assistant staffing ... to be more reflective of what we thought the community needed, not what the contract group needed and not what the bottom line needed. It was clearly a reflection of being directly responsive to the needs of the organization, which I think are directly responsible to the needs of the community," Dr. Craig Mittleman, L+M’s regional director of emergency services, said during a recent interview.

Mittleman said that Westerly Hospital is also working to staff the department in a way that reflects historically busy times, particularly the period from June to early September. In collaboration with how the hospital's nurses are managed, wait times should improve. "It's a team effort but in the past the department was more a servant to the bottom line," Mittleman said.

The Yale system is bucking the trend for large hospital networks to contract for emergency department personnel, Mittleman said. Westerly Hospital contracted for services as far back as 2013, when it was purchased by L+M.

"Yale as a system and L+M Healthcare decided to bring the physicians in-house and to employ the physicians and the physicians assistants to give more of a sense of a local feel," Mittleman said.

The move should give the employees an increased sense of having a proprietary role, he said, and gives hospital managers a more direct relationship with them, "to be able to control and have a more direct influence over the quality that is being delivered not only in medical care but the kinds of caring individuals that are being hired."

Dr. Ryan Carter, who chairs the Westerly Hospital Emergency Department, said the department's employees now have a clearer voice. "It makes a difference whether you're representing the same organization or whether you're part of a contract group and I think that now that we are hospital employees it is more like a wall has come down," he said.

The change comes amid the hospital's intensified focus on patient experience, which involves seeking input from patients. "Certainly that's easier to do now that we have a more responsive structure," Carter said.

It is not unusual, Carter said, for hospital staff members to call patients to inquire about their experience even before a written survey is sent to them. Additionally, committees at both Westerly and L+M meet every other week to review patient satisfaction surveys. Patients who describe problems are called.

Mittleman said, "We're not working here in isolation. The physician and nurses who work here, a lot of them live in this community, and want to be here and want to serve this community and feel proud when they walk away, so we're looking for people's feedback, positive and negative."

Westerly Hospital sees about 20,000 to 25,000 visitors to its emergency department each year, or about 40 to 50 patients daily during average times and 60 to 70 patients daily during the peak season. The L+M system cares for about 250 patients daily in its three emergency departments.

Carter's career included a stint working at Yale New Haven.

"I wanted to come back to Rhode Island. This feels like home. I think that one of the missions for our emergency department and for our hospital is to make sure that people feel like they are being taken care of at a local hospital rather than as part of a health system," Carter said.

dfaulkner@thewesterlysun.com

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