Tulane Regional Medical Center: Dr. Robert Lynch, CEO

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All around the city of New Orleans, there are signs of rebuilding in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. Tulane Medical Center, one of the major healthcare facilities in the downtown area is leading that effort to reconstruct the community. Dr. Robert Lynch, CEO of Tulane Medical Center, summarized his hospital’s role, saying, “We are working to be an engine of good in helping redevelop the city.” From bringing back a sense of confidence by taking over many of the safety-net services, to developing a state-of-the-art training program, the Tulane Medical Center is as focused on caring for the community as for providing outstanding care to its patients.

In the Aftermath of Katrina

Located near the Super Dome, just off the north end of Canal Street, Tulane Medical Center is in the middle of an area that was hit especially hard by hurricane Katrina. At the time of the storm, nearly 1000 people had to be evacuated from the hospital. Flooding and other storm damage closed the hospital until February 2006. “As of December, 2007,” Lynch said, “most of the hospital’s 344 beds are back in service, with the rest to be opened in the next few months.” Lynch went on to note that, “ the community is coming back. We lost a lot of our physicians, staff, and patients; a very unique situation among traditional private hospitals.”

Because of the devastation left by the storm, Dr. Lynch spoke about some important changes to the Tulane Medical Center’s mission. Like other teaching hospitals, Tulane Medical Center focuses on the advancement of the science of medicine, the training of healthcare professionals, and the provision of  outstanding care to its patients. Unique to its circumstances though, Dr. Lynch noted that the fourth element of the hospital’s mission is healing the city along with the people who live there.

Behind Tulane Medical Center’s quick recovery, is a dedicated and loyal team. Lynch, himself a newcomer, acknowledged that he was lucky to inherit a great organizational culture when he took over in August 2007. While many other hospitals in the area had to let their employees go when the storm forced them to close, Tulane Medical Center kept its employees who stayed in the area. Lynch noted that this has built strong staff loyalty and “a real sense of family.” Lynch also said, “what’s left is a distilled group of people who came here to make a difference or people who want to see their home come back. People really want to see change.”

Healing the City of New Orleans

Working to rebuild New Orleans, Tulane Medical Center’s role in training healthcare professionals has changed since it reopened too. Because Louisiana State University’s Charity Hospital has yet to reopen, Tulane Medical Center is now the major training facility in the area. With a great shortage of trained medical professionals, this is a key part of bringing back the capacity of the healthcare network in the area. As CEO, Lynch has devoted much of his time to rebuilding his medical staff and programs. This has included recruiting local professionals as well as helping others to move to the community to serve as both faculty and clinical staff.

One of few remaining major healthcare facilities in Southeast Louisiana, Tulane Medical Center’s role in providing care for the uninsured has become more important as well. The public healthcare system was decimated by the storm, and, according to Lynch, Tulane Medical Center has worked to take in many of these patients in need.

Meeting the Unique Challenges of the Rebuilding Process

Among the greatest challenges of coming back from the storm damage has been getting Tulane Medical Center back on a sound financial footing, Lynch noted. He explained, saying “the economics of medicine in New Orleans changed significantly after the storm. Not only are salaries up, but a housing shortage in the area has meant that the hospital must subsidize housing for staff as well.” Lynch also mentioned that  insurance premiums and utility costs have risen too, with local utilities passing on the price of infrastructure repairs to customers.

Perhaps even more daunting than the financial difficulties rebuilding the hospital is the task of rebuilding the community psyche. Lynch acknowledged that “members of the community and staff who were here [during the storm and its immediate aftermath] suffer from a sort of collective post traumatic stress disorder.” It is for this reason that Tulane Medical Center has concentrated on healing the city as well as on healing its patients.

A Bright Future

Despite all the challenges that Tulane Medical Center has faced, Lynch expressed his excitement for the future, saying “We are very proud of having come back.” He likened the rebuilding process to building an airplane in flight; strategic planning was put on the back burner to get the hospital up and running as quickly as possible. Lynch and his staff are now focused on fine tuning operations to improve care and make the hospital run more smoothly.

Part of the effort to improve efficiency has come in the form of a focus on team training, led by Tulane’s  new Dean of the School of Medicine, Dr. Benjamin Sachs. Lynch also looks to Sachs’s expertise as one important aspect of drawing new healthcare professionals and students to Tulane Medical Center.

While improving efficiency and training is critical, Lynch also has high hopes, and rightly so, for a new clinical simulation center at Tulane Medical Center that just received funding. Only the third such simulator in the United States, it will bring technologies similar to those used in military and commercial flight-simulators to the healthcare environment. As Lynch noted, this will allow professionals to train, and retrain their capacities for dealing not only with the day-to-day aspects of healthcare, but also with special complications. Because this very unique system is a virtual reality simulation, it will allow clinical professionals to get hands-on experience in situations that just cannot be mimicked under traditional programs where learning takes place with real patients. “Its level of sophistication will make it a national asset,” Lynch summed up.

Programs like this simulator and a focus on team training, along with the strong commitment to the community, are helping Tulane Medical Center to bring people back to New Orleans. In Lynch’s own words, “Orleans parish is the fastest growing city in America, and Tulane Medical Center has a very bright future, with many positive trends.”

-by David Winterstein

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