PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Officials from Northern Light A.R. Gould Hospital hosted a forum Wednesday morning at Northern Maine Community College in hopes of expanding the input they receive from community members regarding issues facing the hospital and potential solutions.
Although many community members opted to stay home due to a winter storm that dumped between 8 and 10 inches of snow on the area, Northern Light President Greg LaFrancois saw the forum as an opportunity to highlight recent successes for the hospital as well as areas in which officials are working to improve. He began his presentation by stating that the recent changes within the former Eastern Maine Healthcare System have better positioned the hospital both financially and in terms of patient care.
“It wasn’t really a name change,” LaFrancois said. “We were part of nine hospitals that had a loose affiliation with each other, but the changes (to Northern Light Health) have brought us formally under one system and centralized our financial services. This makes it easier to transfer patient information when folks make appointments downstate.”
Over the past six to eight years, he noted, Northern Light A.R. Gould has improved its own financial standing as a hospital by completing payments on old accounts and decreasing its spending on areas such as marketing in order to refocus on patient experiences.
Hospital officials also have begun to focus on other potential improvements, including with the phone system at the North Street Healthcare facility in Presque Isle, hiring less locum physicians — those who can serve temporarily in medical departments at the various Aroostook County hospitals when needed — and hiring more physicians to serve in permanent positions at the hospital and surrounding community clinics.
LaFrancois stated that the hospital has hired close to 20 new physicians, who have either completed or are in their final months of their medical school residency. They have also made great strides in working with the University of Maine at Fort Kent and NMCC’s nursing programs to expand workforce opportunities for registered nurses and grow its certified nursing assistant program, which pays CNA trainees during their work experience curriculum and offers them positions at the hospital immediately upon graduation.
But at North Street Healthcare there is a shortage of staff members to handle the phone system, which often results in long waits for patients who call to schedule appointments. LaFrancois said he currently is meeting with phone vendors who could possibly set up a more efficient system, but would rather see those expenses go toward medical equipment and supplies. He regularly advocates for more usage of the online patient portal as a way of allowing the scheduling of appointments and medication renewal to become simpler and more quick for patients.
“Eventually I would like to see everyone use the patient portal to renew medications, make appointments and send quick questions to their providers so that we don’t have to rely on phone calls,” LaFrancois said. “We’ve hired four additional staff members to answer the phones but it’s hard to keep those employees because it’s tough work.”
Terry Sandusky, a Northern Light patient from Mapleton, expressed concerns about having elderly patients rely only on the patient portal for communication with providers. He noted that many senior citizens in Aroostook County are on fixed incomes and cannot afford to purchase a computer. As a patient, he said, he also has seen firsthand how difficult online communication can become.
“There have been times when I’ve had a quick question about what I can take with certain medications, but never got a response,” Sandusky said. “It’s not that older folks don’t want to use the computer. They just want to get the information they need.”
LaFrancois stated that he understands that many physicians and other staff members have struggled with navigating the patient portal amidst their already busy schedules, but he wants people to know that the convenience of not using phones or in-person visits to fill medications or ask other questions will save patients time in the long run.
“To the greatest extent possible we want people to learn how to use the portal. It saves so much time when they can just press a button to renew their medications,” LaFrancois said.
Theresa Fowler of Presque Isle raised her concerns about properly educating patients with chronic diseases such as diabetes about proper diet guidelines. Fowler, who is diabetic and not a Northern Light patient, stated that at times she has spoken to people who have been diagnosed with diabetes but were unable to schedule an appointment with a dietician for at least a month, which could greatly affect a patient’s health.
“I was talking to a woman at a farmer’s market and she said she was going to buy an apple for lunch. But for someone like her, with diabetes, a whole apple would have been equal to eating two apples,” Fowler said.
LaFrancois thanked Fowler for bringing her concerns to his attention and said that the purpose of the community forum was to begin such conversations so that he and hospital staff could expand the ways in which they can improve services. He said that further community forums will be scheduled at later dates and that he wants to hopefully recruit more patients and family members to be a part of the hospital’s advisory board.
“Right now we have a very small group but we want to become more diverse in terms of age and the medical issues that people have dealt with,” LaFrancois said. “We don’t just want to talk about what the issues are but also work to find solutions.”