Stanislaus Surgical Hospital always a different patient experience

kcarlson@modbee.comJuly 14, 2014 

Stanislaus Surgical Hospital of Modesto always has tried to create a different experience for its patients and surgeons.

The physician-owned hospital, at East Orangeburg Avenue and Oakdale Road, marks its 30th anniversary today, giving its leaders the right to boast about its approach to health care.

Patients are made to feel more at home than in a conventional hospital. Staff members feel like they are family. And the surgeons don’t have to answer to a large health care corporation.

“It’s a lot more personable,” said Douglas Johnson, the chief executive officer for five years. “The unique culture of the organization is very personable, patient-centered and physician-friendly.”

In 1984, a dozen physicians broke away from larger hospitals in Modesto and built an ambulatory surgery center with support from two business partners. In 2000, the center was expanded and licensed as a 23-bed specialty hospital with rooms decorated in soft colors, medical supplies tucked away in cabinets and order-off-the-menu food service.

Its days as an independent medical facility may be numbered, however. Sacramento-based Sutter Health announced a year ago it was in negotiations to acquire majority ownership of Stanislaus Surgical.

Johnson said Monday the parties are going through due diligence, and he had no guess when a deal may be consummated. Sutter wants to own 51 percent of the organization, which includes the 23-bed hospital, a pain-management center on Coffee Road and an imaging facility on McHenry Avenue.

To make the deal possible, a capital partner and a few of the 52 physician investors would need to sell their shares to Sutter, Johnson said.

Legal issues need to be worked out because of Sutter’s nonprofit status. Stanislaus Surgical has more than 250 employees, and more than 200 physicians have privileges at the hospital.

Johnson said the current investors hope to maintain the hospital’s character under Sutter Health. They are negotiating with Sutter because of rising costs, new regulations and reduced payments from Medicare, all of which will make things difficult for the independent hospital in the future, he said. A deal would give the hospital the strength of Sutter’s name and its mission, Johnson added.

Sutter representatives had no update on the negotiations.

Nurse Kerry Darnell has worked for Stanislaus Surgical since Day One. As the county’s first surgery center was being built in 1984, Darnell was working 12-hour shifts at Memorial Medical Center, taking her away from raising two children. She was hired from among the 200 who applied for jobs at the center and never saw any reason to leave.

“It’s just a different atmosphere, plus I wanted eight-hour shifts and weekends off,” Darnell said.

Darnell recalled going to Raley’s to buy thermometers for the new outpatient center. The small staff chipped in to handle the various chores, whether it was cleaning linens or charting.

The $9.5 million expansion completed in 2000 gave the hospital eight operating rooms with state-of-the-art equipment. The state approved an acute-care license, enabling doctors to refer patients to the hospital for more types of surgery, including those that require an overnight stay.

Today, the hospital’s primary specialties are orthopedics, gastroenterology, ophthalmology, neurology and pain management.

Johnson said the admission numbers declined with the economic slump and a trend toward higher-deductible insurance plans, which require patients to pay more out of pocket for elective surgeries.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, signed into law in 2010, placed limits on the development of new physician-owned surgical hospitals. Facilities such as Stanislaus Surgical don’t have emergency rooms and were criticized for cherry-picking patients who have good insurance.

Still, the Modesto hospital has its own stories about providing care for people in need.

In December, two sisters who work in television in Russia were in a head-on collision during a visit to Yosemite. One of the tourists was seriously injured and airlifted to Memorial Medical Center, where she underwent surgery for a broken back.

Vera Nickelsen, a Stanislaus Surgical nurse who is from Russia, befriended the sisters and let them stay in her home for three weeks. Before they returned to Russia, the injured tourist also needed surgery for a broken clavicle, which was performed by Dr. Michael Purnell at Stanislaus Surgical.

Nickelsen visited the two women in Moscow on a recent trip. “When she was at Memorial, they said she didn’t have a good chance of walking again,” Nickelsen said, showing cellphone pictures of the smiling sisters. “She is walking with a cane and has physical therapy in Russia.”

Information about Stanislaus Surgical Hospital is available at www.stanislaussurgical.com.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or (209) 578-2321.

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