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Hospital loses high ground on its relocation project

November 09, 2003|by TIM ROWLAND

The first order for a doctor is to do no harm, and the first order for a public relations campaign ought to be to refrain from alienating those who are on your side to begin with.

Yet the Washington County Hospital, as it lobbies for a new complex at Robinwood, has done precisely that.

I love the idea of a brand spanking new hospital on the outskirts of Hagerstown, alongside the complementing Robinwood Medical Center. I agree that it will contribute to high-quality health care, increase the area's prestige, assist with the recruitment of medical personnel and become a jewel in the community. I believe traffic problems can be addressed and that the negative impact on the downtown has been overstated.

But the tactics, attitude, arrogance and misrepresentations of the hospital brass in their win-at-all-costs approach and their open disdain for some people in this community who are very deserving of respect have soured my enthusiasm to the point where I can no longer cheerlead for the project.

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Instead, I'll take a seat on the sidelines and the hospital will have to worry along without my support, not that it's much of a loss.

The last straw came when the hospital petitioned to have City Hall removed from the debate - exactly one day after hospital officials met with council members under the guise of opening a dialogue and working together to solve problems and address city concerns.

Obviously, it was all a sham. When the city, which has legitimate questions that deserve to be answered, refused to be steamrolled into submission, the hospital instantly abandoned its veil of cooperation and moved to squelch any city input.

The hospital has no interest in answering nettlesome questions, such as how a new, $180 million facility will affect the cost of health care. It feels no need to explain to the city how the poor or the elderly who live downtown - and the council members have been elected to represent - are to get to an out-of-town location.

It all but spits on the men and women who have poured countless volunteer hours and countless dollars into the existing hospital.

The hospital refuses to acknowledge the emotional attachments of long-standing community families with multiple generations that have been born and have died within those walls.

For a hospital, this bunch is showing precious little conscience or care.

The puzzling question is why. The hospital says that city and community concerns are not legitimate, and maybe so. If that's the case, the state medical commission is certainly learned enough to hear the concerns and dismiss them, allowing the project to move on as planned.

So why is the hospital so angry and threatening to crush the city like bugs? Why is the hospital so determined to silence a democratically elected board that represents 36,000 people?

I don't get it.

How can the administrators argue that any multi-million-dollar project that will ultimately be paid for by the people, be it a new stadium or a new hospital, not be held up to public light?

In the end, the hospital will get its way, and truth be told we will be the better for it. The problem is that hospital leaders have vented a poison that will hang in the air for years to come. And that doesn't affect just the city, it affects the hospital itself.

Institutions become a reflection of their leadership. If that leadership evokes bitterness, it will be felt by the professionals, the staff and the patients. Already, trauma center surgeons have felt it. Who's next?

On a deeper level, the hospital's tactics and the ill will it's generating are emblematic of the way most people feel about Big Medicine today. Care for human beings seems to be the last thing on the agenda. It's all about bottom lines and profits, getting as much work out of as few doctors and nurses as possible and aggressively thwarting people who are uninsured or can't pay up front.

Hospitals, which should be the most warm and caring of institutions, are gaining a national reputation of being cold and mean, and locally the Washington County Hospital's community steamrolling is adding to that perception in spades. Hospital CEO Jim Hamill and company may see themselves as gods, but some in the the community see them as skunks.

None of this needed to be. All it would have taken was one simple teaspoon of humility on the hospital's part. The hospital easily could have had its way, while at the same time genuinely listening to the concerns of the city and long-time residents who have poured their hearts and souls into the existing building.

Instead, so arrogant was the hospital that it was $4 million into the project before it even bothered to look into potential zoning and infrastructure constrictions.

There was a time when hospitals were shining institutions on the hill, a time when no one would dream of questioning them. It was a day when they had the health, not the dollars, of their communities at heart. But today, people see hospitals as just one more big, greedy business.

No one has contributed more to this sense than Hamill himself, whose tactics have proved the point of the bugs he so desperately wants to crush. And former friends of this worthy project are turning their heads in disgust.

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