RIO RANCHO — The new UNM Sandoval Regional Medical Center’s reach is extending far beyond Rio Rancho, with the hospital’s orthopedic specialists serving patients from both sides of the river and its emergency department tending to many of the county’s rural residents.
Indeed, the newest hospital in the University of New Mexico system is fulfilling its planned role as a center specializing in orthopedic and joint replacement surgery and as a referral center for patients from less-populated areas, according to the hospital’s chief administrator.
Surgeries involving joints, spines and total knee and hip replacements make up 47 percent of the 500 operations performed since the 72-bed UNM Sandoval Regional Medical Center opened last summer, hospital CEO Kevin Rogols said.
“This was in the initial plan as a ‘signature program,’” Rogols said, adding that the center has the services of nine of the 29 orthopedic specialists in the UNM system.
The hospital design included special air filtration systems in three of the six operating rooms, overhead lifts in a majority of the patient rooms and beds with built-in massage systems that improve blood flow after orthopedic surgery, Rogols said.
SRMC has also established itself as the first port of call for the sick and injured in Sandoval County’s hinterlands. The location in the northern part of Rio Rancho near City Hall, is accessible from U.S. 550 via an extension of Paseo del Volcan completed in early 2011.
Rogols said around 75 percent of the patients who seek treatment at SRMC come from remote country areas, pueblos or communities along U.S. 550 like Cuba. The remaining 25 percent come from southern Santa Fe County and Bernalillo County. Among those are Albuquerque patients from east and west of the river who are being sent to SRMC for orthopedic surgery according to UNM Health Sciences Center spokesman Billy Sparks.
Since SRMC opened, the number of patients who visit the emergency department has built up to between 32 and 45 a day and the hospital is adding a second physician to handle the busiest period from 3 to 11 p.m.
By comparison, the emergency department at the main UNM hospital in Albuquerque sees around 219 to 273 patients a day, Sparks said.
Rogols said he initially thought the main UNM hospital would be referring patients to SRMC but he acknowledged the Rio Rancho hospital is not reducing demand for services at the main hospital. Instead, it is acting as the first source of medical assistance to patients from rural areas, many of whom are stabilized then referred to the main hospital, which can offer more advanced levels of care. Rogols said SRMC transferred 40 patients to UNMH in January alone.
As a result, SRMC has invested in an ambulance to transport patients to and from the main hospital and has bought a van that will soon shuttle people from rural clinics.
SRMC’s location in Rio Rancho is a boon for Gayle Riley, medical director of the Checkerboard Area Health System of Presbyterian Medical Services, which has clinics in Cuba, Torreon, Ojo Encino, Counselor and Jemez Springs.
“Having the hospital there is huge for us. It is the closest facility,” Riley said.
Presbyterian Medical Services is a nonprofit organization that provides health services in primarily rural areas and is not connected with Presbyterian Healthcare Services that operates the Rust Medical Center in Rio Rancho.
The PMS clinic in Cuba can diagnose and treat simple bone fractures and medical conditions, but must send patients with more complex breaks and those with acute infections or in need of cardiac or pulmonary care or surgery to a hospital. Before SRMC opened, patients had to travel into Albuquerque, she said.
SRMC representatives have reached out to the rural communities by holding meetings to learn about residents’ needs.
“Transportation in rural Sandoval County is a huge, huge issue,” Rogols said.
In response, the hospital has purchased a 15-seat van to bring patients from remote areas to the hospital for screening or treatment. There are also plans to hold health fairs in rural communities, he said.
Affordability is another key issue, and the hospital has instituted a payment program that pro-rates charges according to income, Rogols said.
He estimated that over the first year the number of patients without insurance will average about 15 to 16 percent. By comparison, about one-third of the patients treated at UNMH have no insurance, Sparks said.
Sandoval County residents pay property tax amounting to $4.25 per $1,000 of their home’s value to support operations at SRMC and Presbyterian’s Rust Medical Center, which opened in Rio Rancho in late 2011. The county’s contracts with the hospitals require them to provide free or discounted care to low-income patients.
Rogols said the hospital encourages patients who visit the emergency department to establish a “medical home” in the family practice in the physicians’ office building adjoining the hospital. The idea is to ensure they get regular preventive care instead of having to visit the emergency room.
SRMC also has bought an ambulance to transport those patients who have needs it cannot meet, such as neurosurgery, to Albuquerque.
UNMH is the only Level 1 trauma center —the most advanced level— in the state. SRMC has applied for recognition by the state as a Level 3 trauma center, which can provide emergency treatment, surgery and intensive care but does not have the same availability of specialists as a Level 1 center.
The ambulance can also bring patients to Rio Rancho to free up beds when the main hospital is crowded.
“We don’t charge patients for that,” Rogols said. “It’s a service that we offer to coordinate care between UNMH and SRMC.”