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Even if watchdogs are right, hospitals benefits outweigh all concerns

March 05, 2006|By TIM ROWLAND

More than any other building, a hospital is a barometer of a community's well-being. Not just of its physical health, but of the community's economy, creativity, optimism and energy.

You will rarely find a pulsating community where opportunities abound that has a old and dull hospital showing the wear and tear of its years. And equally few rotting cities can boast a modern health care center.

Hagerstown might stop and think just how fortunate it is that Washington County Health System is about to boost the entire community with a state-of-art hospital to complement the highly acclaimed Robinwood Medical Center.

In response to the those who suggest that profit, not the community's lan, is hospital executives' motive, then I can only say, God bless capitalism.

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To be sure, no one who has watched this messy process from the outside cannot think of a thing or two they wish had been done differently. As such, it's understandable, if not advisable, that some would want to take it to court. I too believe another site might have been better and cheaper, but I also understand the potential dynamics of having a hospital, medical center and college all on the same street.

Nor does it bother me that the plan is now on the "fast track," because for years now it's been on the super-slow-motion track. It's probably been the most scrutinized nonstadium project in the county's history.

Now the details have mostly been finalized, the boards and commissions have made their decisions and the only thing up in the air is how many more months the project will be delayed by those who are expected to appeal the process this week.

Not all, but a majority of the remaining complaints are either subjective, misplaced or frivolous (children will be killed by running out in front of ambulances? They are far more at risk now, when they can dart out from behind a parked car downtown).

On the question of costs, sympathy certainly rests with those fearful of the high cost and inaccessibility of health care. But let's be clear, this is a symptom of America's health care system in general, not of local hospital officials. Local costs may indeed increase and they may increase more than we're being told. But it is folly to think that those who cannot afford a $11,000 medical bill somehow can afford a $10,000 medical bill.

And through the entire debate, it's rather startling that items such as sewer connections have received far more ink than patient care. People's health - remember that? That is, after all, what got the whole ball rolling in the first place.

You can't sue an edifice for malpractice, but increasing study shows that a bad building can contribute to bad health. Something as simple as an old-fashioned and hard-to-clean windowshade can harbor germs. Old hospitals also lack the modern filtration systems that can sweep the air of microorganisms that endanger people in weakened conditions.

Nurses become fatigued and more error-prone walking back and forth through inefficient hallways. Patients can be stressed by walls that aren't soundproofed.

Modern hospitals have computerization to assure the patients are getting the right care and the right medication. It's easier and safer to get to the bathrooms, lessening the chance for falls. Emergencies involving specialized procedures can be handled locally, instead of wasting valuable time in transport.

So take a second to weigh the benefits against the concerns. Just for the sake of argument, let's assume everything the hospital opponents say is true: Costs will be higher than advertised; an already bad traffic situation will be worsened; a student might miss a test question because he was watching a chopper land, or whatever.

Are all these issues combined worth going back to square one? In my view, absolutely not.

Opponents of the project as proposed will argue that it is never a good idea to act first and then hope all the potential problems will work themselves out in time. Under most circumstances they would be right. But here, there is an equally good case that existing problems will not or cannot be solved until the hospital is built.

The hospital will force a lot of hands that should have been forced long ago. For nearly two decades now, the county has known it had a traffic disaster in the Robinwood corridor, yet it has failed to act. The traffic generated by the new hospital will give the state and county no choice.

Likewise, calm observers have known that the city and county would have to come to a meeting of the minds on sewer systems at some point. The city's point is valid: If City Hall makes an exception for the hospital on sewer flow, every developer with plans for growth on the city fringe will be lining up for the same consideration.

But even if the new hospital at Robinwood goes away, the sewer problem won't. Again, the hospital will force action that needs to be taken.

All that aside, however, the fact of the matter is that the existing hospital is a dump. We need a new one to attract skilled professionals to our county. We need a new one that will help the sick and injured get better as soon as possible. If we wish to be a vibrant community, we need a vibrant hospital.

Whether this project could have been done better is no longer the point; every project that has ever been built could have been done better. The hospital's plan is by no means fatally flawed in such a manner that requires judicial intervention.

We appreciate the watchdogs, but the time for watchdogging has past and the time for construction has begun.

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