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Fort Smith’s health-care system is on the rise with the growing Arkansas Colleges of Health Education, the acquisition of Sparks Health System by Baptist Health and recent improvements at Mercy Hospital. 

The Arkansas Colleges of Health Education currently serves two classes at its College of Osteopathic Medicine.

President and CEO of ACHE Kyle Parker says three additional doctoral programs — physicians assistant, physical therapy and occupational therapy — will be up and running with 1,000 students on campus by 2022. There is also the possibility of the college opening up a veterinary program.

The college’s biggest goal is to recruit students who want to stay in the area after finishing their education, Parker said. “You can graduate them all you want, but if they leave, that’s where you haven’t solved the problem,” Parker said at a recent First Friday Breakfast, hosted by the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Parker said before the school opened, its board would not take on the endeavor unless each student could be placed in a nearby program. Most students will stay within 1½ hours of where they received their education.

The school has contracts with Mercy, Baptist and every major hospital in Arkansas, as well as health systems in Oklahoma. Both hospitals in Fort Smith will run nearly 100 students through clinicals next year, Parker said.

The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education granted accreditation to the medical college. Graduate medical education is when students receive training in a specialty, the residency period, or a subspecialty, the fellowship period, after completing medical school.

This will allow the medical college to develop residencies in the areas of family medicine, internal medicine, emergency medicine and surgical medicine. There may be opportunities for other specialties and subspecialties.

“The Arkansas Colleges of Health Education and the Board of Trustees are committed to providing the resources necessary to establish residency training for its graduates, increasing the likelihood that ARCOM students will stay and serve the needs of underserved Arkansas and surrounding states,” Parker said in a 2018 news release. “These residency programs are a key element in increasing the number of medical students that will be able to train in Arkansas.”

The graduate medical education system was implemented to allow allopathic (doctors of medicine, MD) and osteopathic (doctors of osteopathic medicine, DO) doctors complete residencies and fellowships at accredited programs. ARCOM residencies will be available for graduates of both backgrounds.

The purpose of ACHE is more than just churning out more physicians, Parker said. It’s about the reason they’re doing it — giving access to healthcare, specifically to those in Arkansas.

“Every human being, regardless of stature, income, color of skin, religious belief, everybody is equal. Everybody needs to be treated fairly. That’s what we’re going to help change,” Parker said.

The college is also working on fundraising for a park and garden project to remember those who gave their bodies to the college for study, which it believes will bring honor and dignity to the individuals and families in the anatomical donation program.

It is supposed to be an additional way for the college to promote healthy living and will be connected to the city’s trail system.

Baptist Health purchased Sparks Health System, the oldest hospital in Fort Smith, at the end of last year.
The Fort Smith and Van Buren hospitals were both acquired in the sale, bringing Baptist’s total number of hospitals to 11. Fort Smith’s location is a 492-bed acute care facility, while the Van Buren center has 103 beds.

Baptist Health, which is based in Little Rock, announced July 18 it had entered into a purchase agreement to acquire Sparks Health System’s facilities in Fort Smith and Van Buren.

A ribbon-cutting and grand opening ceremony was held at each location Nov. 13, 2018. Troy Wells, president and CEO of Baptist Health, said Sparks had been a “trusted part of the community for 125 years, serving over 355,000 people in the 11-county area.”

Tim Allen, Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, previously said he appreciates Baptist Health investing in Fort Smith and that health care is a major factor in a city’s development.

“It really is the foundation whenever companies and people are looking to locate in a market,” Allen said. “When I learned Baptist Health was coming to Fort Smith, a couple things came to mind, and that is stability and world-class health care.”
Around 1,600 employees work at the two hospitals and affiliate clinics in western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma.

Mercy Hospital launched a $10 million fundraising program in 2018 to go toward its new 16,000-square-foot Neurosciences Center and hired a husband and wife neurosurgeon team.

The goal of this initiative is to provide 24-hour neurosurgical care, which has not been available for several years.

Ryan Gehrig, president of Mercy-Fort Smith previously said around 2,200 neuro cases leave Fort Smith annually due to a lack of round-the-clock care. He also said roughly 700 neuro trauma patients are transferred and 1,500 spinal cases leave the area each year.

This new focus should help improve and support the treatment in other healthcare specialties such as trauma and emergency.

Mercy was also approved in December 2018 for a city building permit worth more than $1 million. Spokesperson Todd Nighswonger said this will go toward office space as doctors will be moved around.