WVU Medicine - A New Day in Wheeling

Wheeling Hospital to Serve Key Role for WVU Medicine as ‘Regional Hub’

Meet Albert Wright

— Since 2016, President and CEO of WVU Medicine, West Virginia’s largest employer

— Previously chief operating officer of WVU Medicine, CEO of J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital

— Senior-level administrator at UPMC in Pittsburgh and Ohio Health in Columbus

— Master’s degree in health administration from the Ohio State University

— Doctor of Pharmacy from the University of Florida

— Married, four children

WHEELING — The wait was worth it for Albert Wright.

As president and CEO of WVU Medicine in Morgantown, the “academic health system of the land-grant university of the state of West Virginia,” Wright said it’s long been a goal of the health system to gain entry into the Northern Panhandle and Upper Ohio Valley markets. That initially came to fruition a few years ago with the acquisition of WVU Medicine Reynolds Memorial Hospital in Glen Dale, and was further cemented with the addition of WVU Medicine Wetzel County Hospital.

Now, the push north is fully complete, as on April 1 Wheeling Hospital officially joined the WVU Medicine network as a full partner, with the new facility now known as WVU Medicine Wheeling Hospital. Also joining WVU Medicine are the local affiliates of Wheeling Hospital, which now are known as WVU Medicine Barnesville Hospital and WVU Medicine Harrison Community Hospital.

WVU Medicine has been managing Wheeling Hospital since June 2019, with WVU Medicine’s Douglass Harrison serving as CEO while the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston retained ownership. Talks between WVU Medicine and the Diocese have been ongoing both before and after Harrison’s arrival for a more permanent change away from the Diocese operating the hospital.

After Wheeling Hospital – with the help of WVU Medicine – was able to settle a Department of Justice lawsuit late last year, which coincided with the Most Rev. Mark Brennan arriving in Wheeling to lead the Diocese in a new direction, the door opened for WVU Medicine to acquire Wheeling Hospital. That deal was announced in September, and now, less than seven months later, is complete.

“There’s the old saying that good things come to those who wait – and this is a long time coming,” Wright said. “We’ve been talking with potential partners in the Wheeling market for years, starting with the former Ohio Valley Medical Center and then Wheeling Hospital. We see this area as a critical part of the state. There is great health care at Wheeling Hospital, and there is the potential for even better health care in Wheeling Hospital and we’re committed to that.”

The years prior to WVU Medicine’s arrival to manage Wheeling Hospital were challenging. Now, however, Wright believes Wheeling Hospital will see its full potential as a member of the WVU Medicine family.

“To know that this story ends with a positive partnership between the Diocese and our health system, to know new investment is being made into Wheeling Hospital and that we’re going to see stabilization for health care in that part of the state, I think this is a tremendous ending – a happy ending – to the story and a beginning of new good things for Wheeling Hospital and the Northern Panhandle,” Wright said.

WVU Medicine administrators from left: Clay Marsh, Albert Wright, and Michael Edmond
pose for a photo at Ruby Memorial Hospital Monday, March 1, 2021. (WVU Photo/Jennifer Shephard)

Wheeling Hospital’s Role in the WVU System

As one of 17 member-system hospitals in the West Virginia University Health System — and the third largest in the group behind J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown and United Health System in Bridgeport — Wheeling Hospital will play an integral role for WVU Medicine as one of its advanced regional hubs, Wright said. What that means is Wheeling Hospital will serve as the centerpiece of care for WVU Medicine in the Northern Panhandle and into Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Wright said these advanced regional hubs are important in a state such as West Virginia, which doesn’t have major population centers. Now, instead of a patient or family having to travel to J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown for sub-specialty care, those same doctors in Morgantown can assist doctors in Wheeling to provide the highest level of care.

“Our mission as a health care system is to improve the health of all West Virginians and all we serve, and if you’re going to do that you can’t send everybody to Morgantown,” Wright said. “You’ve got to have regional hubs like Wheeling that are advanced community hospitals that have a teaching aspect, that have complex programs. Wheeling Hospital is a great example. It’s a Level II Trauma Center, has an open-heart program, has an advanced cardiology program, has a neurosurgical program, advanced cancer care program … these are all things that we are in the process of enhancing.

“So we have regional hubs all around the state. We have one in Berkeley County at Berkeley Medical Center, we have a big regional hub in Bridgeport at United Hospital Center, same thing with Camden Clark Hospital in Parkersburg. I see Wheeling fitting in with those hospitals. Wheeling will be the tertiary care center for the Northern Panhandle – what we call the W.Va. 2 corridor — and crossing into Ohio and parts of Pennsylvania.”

With the addition of a regional hub in the Northern Panhandle to work with the existing hospitals, Wright said that will give better opportunities to focus on population health in the region in a coordinated matter. “We will get patients were they need to be for the best level of care – and that will be done in a coordinated fashion,” he said.

Electronic Records Makes Coordinated Care Work

When a patient visits a WVU Medicine facility, the providers there have access to their entire medical history — prescriptions, labs, images, physician progress note–through WVU Medicine’s electronic records system. That helps for physicians to coordinate care and it also lowers costs, Wright said.

“That’s a big deal because it decreases costs through eliminating duplication – you don’t have to do testing over; it minimizes the chance of mistakes, as there’s no chance of a transcription error; and it allows us to control and lower costs,” he said.

Wright used the following scenario as an example: “Let’s say you go into Harrison Community Hospital for a CT scan and we need to transfer you to Wheeling. You’re not going to have to get that CT scan again when you get to Wheeling Hospital, because your caregiver will see your images and be able to use that information to take care of you. We’re working in an electronically coordinated and physician coordinated network of care that I believe is going to lead to superior health outcomes for folks,” he said.

Wright cited a study from the University Health Consortium, a group of 102 academic health systems of which WVU Medicine is a member, that concluded the following when it comes to improving outcomes and controlling costs:

“For a patient with chronic disease such as congestive heart failure, if those patients over a three-year period get less than 50% of their care in one coordinated system like ours, the cost is about $75,000 …,” Wright said. “If you get greater than 90% of your care in one coordinated, integrated health system, the cost drops to about $35,000 over that three-year period. We think we’re not only going to provide deeper, more coordinated care, which will hopefully result in more positive outcomes, but we’re also going to be able to lower the cost of care.”

The French Fry Analogy

If you’ve eaten at a McDonald’s it’s a safe bet that, all things being equal, the French fries taste exactly the same. Wright sees the level of service and care at WVU Medicine being akin to that – patients in Wheeling will receive the same level of care and service here that they will in Morgantown, for example.

For Wright, it’s important for the WVU Medicine brand that all its member-system hospitals work under the same guiding principles of offering the best possible care for patients in a coordinated manner.

“Not only do want to improve the health of West Virginians, but we take our WVU Medicine brand, and what people expect from that brand, tremendously seriously,” he said. “Let’s take cancer care, for example. What we do is, especially for your higher-level care, you may have to come to Morgantown for your initial diagnosis or some imaging or surgery, but when we send you home, when we send you back to Wheeling or Glen Dale or wherever that may be, we want to make sure your chemotherapy protocols, your radiation oncology protocols, your access to sub-specialized pathology or radiology or clinical trials is the exact same as it would be in Morgantown.”

That’s particularly important for WVU Medicine’s advanced signature care programs – oncology, cardiology, neurosurgery, neonatology and others. Medical faculty at West Virginia University lead those programs and essentially set forth the health care blueprint for the entire system to follow.

“Whether we’re caring for a patient for these advanced conditions in Martinsburg, or Bridgeport, in Parkersburg or now Wheeling, they’re getting the exact same level of care – we’re salting those French fries the exact same way,” he said. “When you see the WVU Medicine Cancer Institute sign in Wheeling, you know that it is truly a component of the WVU Cancer Institute that starts in Morgantown.

“That’s a big deal, and that’s very different from some other health care systems. If you peel back the onion at some other health care systems, you’ll see them put their name on buildings, but they don’t have that faculty thread that keeps things the exact same in the way we approach care. That is a big issue for us, to ensure we’re promoting excellence in all of our facilities.”

Better Health Care for West Virginia

WVU Medicine has seen steady growth in the past few years, with 17 member system hospitals, three managed hospitals and three affiliate hospitals including Weirton Medical Center. Based primarily in West Virginia, the system and its 20,000-plus employees also extends into Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Health care nationally has been moving toward the creation of large integrated systems such as WVU Medicine that have the expertise to handle complex, advanced care and also the scale to hold down costs.

As president and CEO, Wright is responsible for setting the direction of WVU Medicine. And if you’ve had the pleasure to meet and talk to him in person, it’s clear he’s extremely passionate about his work to improve health care in the state.

But it’s a team effort to make that happen. Wright credits his board of directors, WVU President E. Gordon Gee and WVU Health Sciences Vice President and Executive Dean Dr. Clay Marsh for helping set the vision for WVU Medicine — a vision he believes will lead to better health outcomes for West Virginia.

“Historically, West Virginia ranks almost last in almost every health care metric you look at. Heart disease, diabetes, obesity, drug addiction – West Virginia is typically between 45th and 50th. We as leaders and our board realized that if we just do the same old thing from a health care standpoint, there is no reason to think that would change,” Wright said. “So we are building an integrated health care system with the true intention of improving the health of West Virginians and creating a health care system that’s not 45th or 50th, but is a role model for the rest of the country and gives the people of the state and region the health care system they deserve.”