A unique beast

Finding the right partner will help beleaguered OSU Medical Center maintain its role as the nation’s only osteopathic teaching hospital.



Medical student Andrea Partida demonstrates heart sounds to Ali Nolan at the Operation Orange summer camp held at Tahlequah in June.

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When the Oklahoma legislature voted last spring to provide $13 million to the Oklahoma State University Medical Center, it seemed like yet another reprieve for the Tulsa-based academic health center. But this latest infusion may finally allow the hospital to find the ongoing help it needs to maintain the nation’s only osteopathic teaching hospital.

“It’s a unique beast,” says OSU-Tulsa and OSU Center for Health Sciences President Howard Barnett. The medical center draws hundreds of applications from osteopathic students throughout the country. And the “symbiotic relationship” between it and the OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine is essential to the latter’s mission of training primary care physicians for Oklahoma’s rural communities.

For years, the financially troubled hospital’s continuing operations have been bolstered by a variety of measures, including ownership by Ardent/Hillcrest Health System.

Six years ago, fiscal pressures forced the hospital to announce it would close and move its residency program to Saint Francis Hospital, a change that could have done more than disrupt OSU’s medical program, because the hospital also is critical to providing care for the area’s indigent patients.

On average, OSUMC sees 45,000 people a year in its emergency room, says Barnett. Last year, 19,000 of those had no ability to pay. Were it not available, other local emergency rooms would become overwhelmed.

In September 2008, “when we announced the move of the residency program, suddenly everybody got up in arms,” says Barnett. After much discussion, ultimately in early 2009, the hospital became a City of Tulsa trust, with an operating management agreement with St. John Medical Health System. After three and a half years, St. John, whose main facility is only two miles away, asked the trust to make other arrangements, says Barnett. A consulting firm now manages the hospital. 

The Oklahoma legislature agreed to supply $5 million annually from 2009-2013, Barnett says. The hospital matched those dollars with federal funds “so that the $25 million ended up being more like $75 million,” Barnett says. But that funding ended June 30. 

Hospital officials with the aid of the consulting firm knew they would continue to need state funding, but also another approach.

“We have to go out in the next stage of our evolution and find a partner, another health care system,” Barnett says. “In the days of the Affordable Care Act, the small, stand-alone hospital(s), particularly urban hospitals, will be dinosaurs. There are just so many things that need to have a system around,” whether for economies of scale to process medical records, for buying power or for bundled payment plans.

Hospital officials took their case to the legislature, stressing OSUMC’s role in providing indigent care and its importance as a teaching hospital, and the need for state support to attract a partner. It received the aforementioned $13 million for the next year while it searches.

Presently, the medical center is developing criteria for the right match. “From a school standpoint, we want a partner who understands what it means to be an academic health center, and wants to be part of the educational process,” Barnett says.

It may also be the first, best solution to cure its chronic fiscal bleeding.

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January 2019

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