By Dwain Hebda
Thanks to not one but two hospitals in town, a respected college of health and behavioral science and a growing community of affiliated providers, Conway is fast making a name for itself as a city of health and wellness.
“The opportunities for wellness in Conway are expansive,” says Tim Bowen, vice-president and administrator, Baptist Health Medical Center-Conway. “These include a trail system for biking and running, a bike share program, several parks and recently opened tennis courts.
“The options go further to include wellness offerings targeted specifically for children, like the Boys and Girls Club, Optimist Youth Football League and Upward Sports.”
Bowen says Baptist Health has also invested heavily in the wellness of the community with a variety of programs designed to help keep people from getting sick in the first place.
“Baptist Health Medical Center-Conway provides a wellness program for employees,” he says. “In the community, we offer diabetes education programs, BHeart Healthy screenings, free flu shots at select events, a farmers’ market in the summer, vegetable gardens and a school-based education program on nutrition and fitness. We additionally provide a community one-mile walking loop around the hospital’s campus.”
Lori Ross, chief development officer for Conway Regional, says the longtime health care institution also places a high priority on community wellness, starting with its health and fitness center, a facility that goes back decades.
“Conway Regional built the health and fitness center 25 years ago,” she says. “At the time, it was far west of town, but now is really located in the center of town. It consistently has a membership of over 10 percent of the city’s population; I think our membership of the health and fitness center in now is close to 7,000 people. That was an effort to improve community health and keep people out of the hospital.”
Ross says a culture of wellness such as Conway’s doesn’t happen due to the efforts of a single business or organization, but as a result of the work of multiple forces within the community. She credited the city for intentional efforts to provide health amenities to serve a growing population.
“Overall, I’d give Conway very high marks for wellness,” she says. “The city has invested in walking trails and bike lanes. I’ve started biking recently, and I’m just amazed at how many busy streets here have bike lanes. That’s wonderful.
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“I think the city has in mind an active community in their master plan going forward, and they have had that for a while,” Ross adds. “As they are building streets – for instance, the new bridge that goes over I-40 – they include bike lanes on either side with the hope of being able to allow walkers and cyclists to travel from one side of town to the other. There’s also a new bridge being built over Dave Ward that will continue the trail system for that purpose.”
Baptist Health and Conway Regional also contribute to the economic health of the community, as two of the largest employers in the city.
“Our Conway presence provides hundreds of great-paying jobs to the community. This, in turn, has brought in new families that buy houses, have kids in school and shop locally to boost the city’s economy,” Bowen says.
“A 2015 study by the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture estimated that the hospital’s presence would generate around $177 million in economic output in 2018 within Baptist Health’s Central Arkansas market area.”
Ross says, in addition to employing 1,300 people, Conway Regional also contributes substantially to the community via free care and charitable donations.
“Not everybody who comes to the hospital is able to pay; we know that in many cases as they walk in the door,” she says. “We are a not-for-profit organization, and therefore we say, ‘Come on in, we can take care of you.‘We know that those bills are never going to be paid, so we write off a lot of that.
“We also donate lots of things out in the community,” she adds. “A deal that we’ve done now for four years is we donate bottled water to every high school in Faulkner County that they then can sell in their concession stands. We can buy in bulk, and it’s very low cost compared to what they would have to otherwise pay for it. In some cases, we’ve given $14,000 worth of water for one school to sell in their concession stands, and they keep that money.”
As the two health centers have thrived in the community, it has given rise to a growing community of adjunct health care clinics, specialists, doctor’s offices and other health care-related companies. As these companies have grown, it creates a hiring strain on many of these firms, generating considerable demand for health professionals of all varieties.
“There’s a real shortage of physicians and a need to educate additional health care individuals in nursing and other health professions,” says Nancy Reese, head of the Department of Physical Therapy at the University of Central Arkansas. “Part of the issue is that the health profession is aging. A lot of people are getting closer to retirement, and there are not qualified individuals to replace those that are about to exit the field.”
To that end, UCA has kept a forward-looking eye on what’s happening in medicine to provide the most well-rounded and workplace-ready graduates possible.
“Our students are being presented this inter-professional education piece to stay relevant to what’s going on in practice in community health and so forth,” says Jennifer Moore, chairman of UCA’s occupational therapy department.
And, as Ross says, as the country’s health care industry continues to evolve, the fundamental question of how institutions will be compensated for their services and by whom provides a primary challenge for the future.
“A challenge to running the business of health care is the ever-changing payer landscape and how that changes every year,” she says. “Who qualifies? Who doesn’t? Medicare, Medicaid – if there’s no money, there’s no mission. We want to be able to be as efficient as we can be so that we can extend more help out there and help more people.”
By Dwain Hebda