10 years later: Was the OLOL/LSU partnership worth it?

“This partnership has helped to keep really smart people in Baton Rouge who want an innovative place to work.” — Dr. Catherine O’Neal, chief medical officer, Our Lady of the Lake (Collin Richie)

In April 2013, Baton Rouge’s health care landscape underwent a dramatic transformation when Our Lady of the Lake, LSU and the state of Louisiana entered into a landmark public-private partnership—the first such partnership in the state’s history.

Among the partnership’s stated goals were to improve access to care, drive new research and expand graduate medical education.

The partnership saw the closure of the state-run Earl K. Long Medical Center, which was at the time the only hospital specifically dedicated to serving residents of north Baton Rouge. About 700 of the facility’s employees were laid off. Our Lady of the Lake went on to absorb all of Earl K. Long’s operations, hiring back roughly 400 of the shuttered hospital’s employees.

The partnership was controversial upon its inception at least partly due to concerns that health care outcomes in underserved communities like north Baton Rouge would suffer from Earl K. Long’s closure, though officials from Our Lady of the Lake and LSU insisted that would not be the case.

In light of the partnership’s 10-year anniversary, it seems a good time to examine what the collaboration has been able to accomplish thus far. Were those concerns about north Baton Rouge warranted? And what impact has the partnership had on Baton Rouge’s health care landscape overall?

“The thing that can’t be lost in this discussion is that a great deal of services that were not available to our patients [at Earl K. Long] are available to them now.” — Dr. Kevin Reed, associate dean, LSU Health Sciences Center (LSU Health Sciences Center)

ACCESS TO CARE

To address the concerns about diminished access to care in north Baton Rouge following Earl K. Long’s closure, the partnership facilitated the 2013 construction of the LSU Health — North Campus, which was later rebranded as Our Lady of the Lake North. The campus included primary care and urgent care clinics, before adding an ER in 2017.

According to Dr. Catherine O’Neal, Our Lady of the Lake’s chief medical officer, a wide range of subspecialty care services has also been introduced to the campus in recent years. For example, patients now have access to ENTs, mental health experts and neuroscientists, among other specialists. This means that north Baton Rouge residents, many of whom lack reliable transportation, no longer have to travel outside of their community to access the care they require.

“When we talk about access, people have to feel comfortable going to the doctor, and that means the doctor has to be as close to them as possible,” O’Neal says.

LSU Health Sciences Center Associate Dean Kevin Reed, who worked at Earl K. Long prior to its closure, says that increased access to subspecialty care in north Baton Rouge has been one of the partnership’s biggest accomplishments. At Earl K. Long, patients requiring subspecialty care would often be referred to specialists outside of Baton Rouge—a huge burden for patients lacking reliable transportation.

“The thing that can’t be lost in this discussion is that a great deal of services that were not available to our patients [at Earl K. Long] are available to them now,” Reed says.

Overall, O’Neal and Reed seem to have little doubt that access to quality care has improved for north Baton Rouge residents since the partnership began. But improving access to care is only one part of the partnership’s plan to foster better health outcomes in that community. O’Neal says there are huge disparities in overall health among the city’s ZIP codes, and the underlying causes of those disparities desperately need to be addressed, as well.

“We’ve identified that we have ZIP codes in which people just die earlier,” O’Neal says. “They die earlier from all causes. It’s not just one thing.”

To address those root causes, the partnership has launched a pair of initiatives aimed at boosting life expectancy and encouraging healthy habits in north Baton Rouge. One is a program that offers hypertension screenings at barbershops, eliminating the need to travel to a health care facility for such tests. The other is a program called “Geaux Get Healthy,” which aims to increase access to affordable and nutritious food and teach residents how to cook balanced meals with those ingredients.

RESEARCH AND WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT

According to Reed, Our Lady of the Lake’s partnership with LSU has also served to transform Baton Rouge into a hub for medical research. He says this emphasis on research has led to lifesaving discoveries in health care technology and treatment.

“Research has been one of our greatest successes,” Reed says. “Because of this alignment, we have a large number of faculty, residents and students who are actively participating in research projects.”

Our Lady of the Lake is currently engaged in approximately 254 clinical trials. Some of the most transformative research projects conducted in recent years relate to patient mobility programs and sepsis diagnosis.

O’Neal says the partnership’s sepsis research in particular has been a major achievement, as sepsis is the leading cause of mortality in hospitals across the U.S. In August 2023, Our Lady of the Lake became the first hospital in the country to offer a “groundbreaking” sepsis test—the IntelliSep Diagnostic Test—which calculates results in less than 10 minutes. The hospital’s quality and research team developed that technology over a nine-year period in partnership with California-based Cytovale.

The partnership’s emphasis on research has also helped Our Lady of the Lake to recruit, train and retain talented physicians, O’Neal says. While the hospital did struggle with employee turnover during the COVID-19 pandemic, she says that Our Lady of the Lake now has one of the lowest turnover rates in the U.S.—something that she attributes to the hospital’s culture of continuous education and innovation.

“This partnership has helped to keep really smart people in Baton Rouge who want an innovative place to work,” O’Neal says.

“Louisiana is not a healthy state, and we tend to get people when they’re sicker than they need to be. How do we intercept them quicker?” — Chuck Spicer, president, Our Lady of the Lake Health (Our Lady of the Lake Health)

ECONOMIC IMPACT

An analysis commissioned by Our Lady of the Lake in September 2023 sought to paint a picture of the partnership’s economic impact over the past decade.

According to the report, the hospital’s annual economic impact has grown to $2.6 billion, a $1.5 billion increase over the past 10 years. By 2030, its annual economic impact is expected to grow to $3.8 billion.

The analysis also indicates that the partnership has caused statewide employment to grow by 5,863 since its inception, and that Our Lady of the Lake directly or indirectly supports one in every 150 jobs in Louisiana. It also claims that the partnership has generated $61.3 million in state and local taxes since 2013.

So, what comes next?

While Our Lady of the Lake President Chuck Spicer says the quality of the hospital’s facilities “has never been better,” he does acknowledge that there is still room for the partnership to grow. In particular, he says that federal funding for graduate medical education initiatives has dried up in recent years and that cultivating funding for such initiatives is one of his main priorities going forward.

Spicer says the biggest challenge facing the partnership, though, is the poor overall health of the state.

“Louisiana is not a healthy state, and we tend to get people when they’re sicker than they need to be,” Spicer says. “How do we intercept them quicker?”

As for politics, Spicer says he has no doubt that the partnership will continue to thrive under Gov. Jeff Landry’s administration.

“Gov. Landry has been tremendous,” Spicer says. “We’ve been a part of his transition team. I feel very good about where the governor stands on workforce, on access and on making sure we become healthier as a state.”