New ER caps a decade of Cooley Dickinson partnership with Mass General Brigham

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 07-11-2023 12:14 PM

NORTHAMPTON — In the decade since Cooley Dickinson Hospital joined the system of then Massachusetts General Hospital, the partnership has shown its value in an expansion of services and capacity, the provision of expertise and support that helped the hospital handle the COVID-19 pandemic, and a robust bottom line, according to hospital executives.

“We have access to the best hospital in the world,” said Dr. Raymond F. Conway, Cooley Dickinson’s medical director of urgent care and occupational medicine. “You can pick up the the phone and call somebody who just wrote 15 articles about some obscure medical case you’re dealing with now and they answer the phone.”

On July 20, Cooley Dickinson will hold a groundbreaking ceremony for the hospital’s new emergency department building, which will also serve as a commemoration of the hospital’s 10-year anniversary of its affiliation with what is now Mass General Brigham. Featured guests at the event include CDH President and CEO Lynette Watkins and Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra.

The new emergency room represents a $19 million investment for the hospital, with $8 million of that raised through the community, as well as a symbol of expansion made possible through its partnership with a much larger hospital system.

“We have a huge behavioral health population that this new emergency department will be taking care of,” Conway said. “Predicting the future is hard to say, but we certainly need what we’re getting now.”

Back in 2011, Cooley Dickinson was on the hunt for a new owner. It was a time of acquisitions and mergers in the health care industry, the ongoing recovery from the 2009 financial crisis and the passage of the Affordable Care Act, requiring hospitals to upgrade to electronic records systems — a costly process. Cooley Dickinson was looking to avoid the fate of other small hospitals in the region, such as North Adams Regional Hospital, which had recently filed for bankruptcy.

The hospital had three original candidates for a merger: Mass General, Baystate Health Systems in Springfield and Vanguard Health Systems, a for-profit hospital system that’s now a part of Tenet Healthcare.

Among doctors and medical staff, it soon became nearly unanimous which one they wanted to join.

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“Probably 90% felt Mass General was a better merger versus 10% for Baystate,” Conway recalled. “Baystate is still a great system. But from an academic perspective, we thought Mass General made better sense.”

After approval from the state, Cooley Dickinson Hospital formally became part of Mass General in 2013. With the merger, doctors in Northampton could contact Mass General, an academic hospital affiliated with Harvard Medical School, for research articles and obtain them almost immediately. Telehealth services for radiology and stroke treatments became available. A shuttle system was developed that could transport patients from Northampton to Boston.

The partnership also has beneficial for Cooley Dickinson’s bottom line. For the period of 2017-2021, the hospital had an operating surplus of $44 million, with its total net assets increasing more than sixfold, according to the state’s Center for Health Information Analysis. In addition, the number of available staffed beds increased from 91 to 151, according to the CHIA.

During that time the whole medical world turned upside down with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We had no idea what was going on with patients in December [2019] before we knew what it was,” Conway said. “And then we found out it was COVID. So we opened a respiratory care clinic here to see these respiratory patients, and following Mass General’s guidelines and their infectious disease experts, we were able to figure out how to treat them.”

Through its partnership, Cooley Dickinson also was able to obtain personal protective equipment in suddenly short supply, including N95 masks, face shields and medical gowns from Mass General. The Northampton hospital wound up operating at a $800,000 loss in 2020, but returned strongly in 2021 with a $25 million surplus.

The benefit of having his local hospital affiliated with a heavyweight medical resource such as Mass General is not lost on Hatfield resident Robert Aquadro, who began feeling some pain in his throat around that time. Aquadro had sought treatment from a local ear, nose and throat practitioner before heading to Mass General Brigham, where he received an official cancer diagnosis.

“We tried surgery twice, but the cancer was just too far gone. And then I came out of surgery minus a vocal chord,” Aquadro said. “So then we had to go to radiation to do the cancer treatment, which they usually try to avoid.”

With Cooley Dickinson’s partnership with Mass General Brigham, however, Aquadro was able to receive radiation and chemotherapy treatments nearby, rather than having to travel the two hours it takes to go to Mass General’s Cancer Center.

“It’s a very treatable cancer, but the cure is difficult,” Aquadro said. “You want to be at home, and we were able to do it here.”

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.

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