Like most businesses and organizations in the region and beyond, COVID-19 has resulted in big changes and big challenges for Pikeville Medical Center.

However, according to hospital CEO and Vice President Donovan Blackburn, the hospital’s planning and actions both before and during the pandemic have laid not only a foundation for the hospital to be at the forefront of treating and fighting against COVID-19, but also for a future in which more and better quality services will be offered to people in the region closer to home for years to come.

Blackburn said that PMC was on a good track when COVID-19 first surfaced, then made a massive impact on the hospital’s bottom line, forcing it to close elective services throughout April and May.

“Back in March, when we saw that COVID was starting to make its way through the U.S., we looked at our initial projections for April and realized what was getting ready to happen,” he said.

Blackburn said that, without the knowledge that a stimulus package, ultimately approved as the CARES Act, was coming, the hospital had to come to grips with the reality that it was going to have to shut down elective procedures — where the hospital makes its money — for a time. Blackburn said that it was the right thing to do at the time to protect the hospital’s patients, but it did have an impact on Pikeville Medical Center’s bottom line.

“When we looked at our projections, we had the possibility of losing multiple, multiple millions of dollars, not in a year, but in a month,” he said. “And, actually, that came to fruition.”

Despite questions about whether the hospital should continue with expansion projects during the pandemic, Blackburn said those programs are important to the region.

“The answer was really simple for me, it was because this was not going to last long-term,” he said, adding that there would ultimately be a pent-up demand for services after the shutdown.

And, he said, with the approval of the CARES Act, and the reopening of elective services in June, staying the course was proven the right thing to do.

“We had our busiest June and July that we’ve ever had,” he said. “Our clinic business was up 25 percent because people were putting procedures off that were needed and that was dangerous.”

Blackburn said that aspect has led to a “lesson learned” scenario for the state and federal leaders, who are unlikely to institute another similar shutdown of hospital services because of the impacts it had on people’s health.

“We realized we can’t put others at jeopardy by protecting a segment of the population,” he said.

Blackburn said many services on which the hospital was working were able to be adapted and put in place quickly due to the groundwork already done. An example he cited is telehealth services. PMC, he said, was  already working on instituting a telehealth program with the Pike County Schools District, but the hospital was able to quickly pivot and put that out even more widespread, and was even able to institute aspects such as providing locations at which people without internet access could use the services.

He also pointed to the 24-hour drive-through pharmacy and drive-through laboratory services, which have provided both safety and convenience for the public and staff during the course of the pandemic. The drive-through lab services, he said, will continue even past the COVID epidemic.

“The public has really liked that service,” he said.

All that, he said, was in addition to the hospital instituted a number of policies and procedures to protect staff and the public and also to deal with the virus. Blackburn pointed to the opening of COVID-ready wards which proved to be the correct thing to do, taking into consideration the number of COVID cases the hospital ended up treating.

“Three different times we’ve used our surge plan to increase,” he said. “A surge a month ago, we had 85 patients total. Actually, at that time, it was more than any other hospital in the state of Kentucky.”

But, he said, the policies and procedures are working.

“So far, as of last week, we did not have one employee contract COVID who was working the COVID unit,” he said.

Acting quickly, instead of waiting and reacting, he said, provided the basis for the hospital to deal with the virus.

“We went urgent speed,” he said. “We’ve been at the forefront … simply because we’ve been the aggressor. Instead of waiting for things to happen, we’ve been making suggestions.”

The hospital’s expansions, both those in progress and those announced during 2020, haven’t just focused on direct patient care. Blackburn pointed to the creation of a learning center at the former Summit Building which will allow the hospital to help in the training of new nurses and other specialized personnel.

“Big Sandy is expected to bring their first nursing cohort in by the end of January,” he said. “The first group will have about 35 students in it.”

Blackburn said the University of Pikeville’s nursing program has also expanded from 35 when he first began at the hospital to 90 students.

“Instead of hiring agency nurses … why not build a program here where we can put Eastern Kentucky people to work,” he said. “We’ll educate them here and they’ll stay here and take care of their friends and neighbors.”

Blackburn said the hospital is currently hiring approximately 95 percent of the students who graduate from the UPike nursing program. Those not hired, he said, are typically going outside the area.

The Pikeville Medical Center Heart Institute just completed a $35 million expansion, announced during the pandemic the continuation of the Drs. R.V. and Jyothi Mettu Children’s Hospital and opened the Appalachian Valley Autism Center, as well as received a grant to expand the hospital’s cancer center.

The AVA Center, which is named after Blackburn’s granddaughter, Ava, is already expanding and changing lives, he said.

“We’re working without about four different institutions to develop a Board Certified Behavioral Analyst program,” he said, which is a position needed in the AVA Center.

Blackburn said that for every BCBA the hospital adds, it can bring in another 10 to 12 “learners” — students — which also means the hospital will be able to bring on another 10 to 12 Registered Behavior Technicians.

“The goal is, within the next 18 months, to be up to about 100 learners,” he said. “If you look at the statistics in the area, right now the CDC says one out of 54 people is on the autism spectrum.”

More importantly than just offering a service or line of business, according to Blackburn, is that he and other officials with the hospital are hearing success stories from families in the community, including some families who are hearing their children speak for the first time.

All of these things, he said, have led to the hospital being able to not only survive the pandemic, but also to thrive.

“We’re still a very stable hospital,” he said. “We’ve been actually been able to hire during the time of this pandemic due to not outsourcing to other countries and building those job bases here.”

The point of the growth is that there are multiple layers of benefit for the community. Not only does the targeted expansion of services provide more local jobs and more financial stability for the hospital, but the growth, he said, ensures that families and individuals throughout the region are able to receive a level of care that formerly required travel for hours.

“They’re not traveling at the point of their lives when they should be able to remain home,” he said.

And, he said, the job creation is not just impacting Pike County, but surrounding communities, as well.

“I’ve got 450 employees who live in Floyd County,” he said. “This isn’t just about Pike County.”

And that growth and expansion is something that will continue into the future.

“We’re providing better healthcare and we’re doing it at home and creating jobs,” he said.

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