Hospitals, heal thyselves

We can't begin to tell who's right, who's wrong or who has the strongest legal argument in a current dispute involving Medford's two hospitals and a doctor's group. But there seems little doubt that this is not a good thing for the community.

Medford's two hospitals, Providence Medford Medical Center and Rogue Valley Medical Center, are suing each other over a medical imaging center that has provided services to both. Providence sued Rogue Valley over an alleged breach of contract when RVMC announced it planned to withdraw from the cooperative effort and RVMC countersued last week.

The litigants, and the employees of Oregon Advanced Imaging, expect to hear today whether a Jackson County judge will issue an injunction to preserve the imaging center for up to five years, the length of the disputed contract.

In the meantime, we are treated to an unseemly display between the administrators of the two hospitals. A lawyer for the imaging center referred to a "total war" between the two operations and a facilitator said he observed a "visceral level of distrust" among hospital representatives. The two sides dredged up memories of tense negotiations to end the Vietnam War when they couldn't even agree to the number of people allowed to attend a meeting on the subject.

The hospitals should be embarrassed and the rest of the community worried. We have to wonder, if the two can't cooperate on even the most basic level in providing health care, is health care really what they're most interested in?

There has always been competition between Providence and Rogue Valley. For years, it was kept in check by the state, which issued certificates of need when one or the other sought to expand services. But that common sense — albeit cumbersome — process was greatly reduced years ago and the competition began in earnest in Medford and elsewhere.

Competition is generally a good thing when it comes to ensuring quality and low costs. That is, it's a good thing if you're trying to buy a washing machine or a half-gallon of milk. But if it's health care you're after, competition can have the opposite effect.

By splitting the patients and the revenue for specialties, hospitals are less able to afford the best people and equipment and less able to focus their energies on cutting-edge practices. At the same time, by competing in an ever-growing number of specialties, they are forced to duplicate purchases of very expensive technology. Now the same pool of patients is paying for two of the latest high-tech pieces of equipment, even if there's only the demand to keep one busy.

Providence and Rogue Valley have played that game already in several arenas, most recently with Providence adding cardiac stenting and Rogue Valley opening a physical rehab unit.

For the consumer, this kind of competition in medicine can lead to reduced quality, accompanied by increased prices. And we wonder why health-care costs and health-care complaints are going up?

Delivering health care is not just another business. The medical professionals and hospitals who deliver health-care services are more than merchants of medicine. They should live up to their calling by focusing on how best to serve the community, rather than on how best to increase the size of their buildings.

And they should try to get along in the process.

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