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Community Profile: Incline Village Community Hospital’s Louis J. Ward

October 7, 2022 | Kayla Anderson

As our community continues to grow so do the health care needs of our community. Tahoe Forest Hospital System, which includes our own Incline Village Community Hospital, IVCH, is adapting to a challenging and evolving marketplace. Tahoe Forest management, staff, volunteers and even community members and patients are working together to ensure that Tahoe Forest, at each of its locations, can fulfill the priorities and needs of all residents in Tahoe as well as the smaller rural communities nearby.

Over the last 6 years, The Tahoe Forest Health System has grown tremendously, in fact, it has more than doubled in size. Throughout its network, Tahoe Forest has added Physicians, Nurse Practitioners, and Physician Assistants. In total, Tahoe Forest now has over 160 health care providers as well as a largely new management team including a new Chief Nursing Officer, Jan Iida, the new Chief Operating Officer and Administrator for Incline Village Community Hospital, Louis Ward, who was interviewed for this article. Beyond staff, facilities and beds, medical specialties have also grown. With this growth, has come an even higher standard of care. The governing boards’ vision is to be the best mountain healthcare system in the nation. All of this is relevant because the national medical landscape is ripe for change and as a critical access hospital, Tahoe Forest serves a key role in the larger system. 

The Tahoe Forest Healthcare system is a licensed critical access hospital. This is defined as a healthcare system that operates in a rural area and offers services to patients who might otherwise have a hard time accessing care. Given their geographic locations, critical access hospitals face a number of challenges that urban hospitals do not often encounter. Typically, in rural communities, the health insurance landscape is more varied between those who are insured and a larger number of residents who are not. Due to this, a higher percentage of patients often need financial assistance. High proportions of patients travel from long distances and this poses a challenge for providers in terms of regular engagement and also in preventative medicine programs. Fewer specialties and smaller staff often make certain healthcare challenges hard to treat. Things that challenge city hospitals such as drinking, drug use, and addiction, also plague smaller rural hospitals but in larger proportions. From an overhead perspective not directly related to care costs, smaller, rural hospitals typically face obstacles such as extreme weather, atypical building codes and smaller work forces to pull from for staffing. In the past, many of these things have been true of Incline and have historically helped contribute to healthcare challenges in our town. 

As Harry Weis, President and CEO of Tahoe Forest Hospital System, explained, one-third of hospitals system similar to the Tahoe Forest System are at risk of closing due to financial distress. Critical access hospitals offer similar if not the same services, hours and specialties as urban health care environments, but typically receive lower reimbursement rates despite similar overhead costs. Weis and his team have taken a lot of preventive measures to ensure that they are not at financial risk and can continue to serve the communities in which they also live. Integration into the community through schools, outreach programs and a number of partnerships that keep health on the forefront of residents’ minds are a part of these measures. This incorporation into the community is seen almost daily in Incline Village with lines blurred between community members and healthcare providers as providers are also residents and regularly socialize, work and cross paths with their patients. This seamless integration into residents’ lives makes initiatives like the Wellness Program even easier to integrate.  The Wellness Program is a perfect example of this proactive community base approach to help patients think of health in a multifaceted way focusing on diet, exercise, motivation, mental health and long term health care planning. 

The Wellness Program, as well as the way the entire Tahoe Forest system is run, is based on the idea that the future of healthcare is an Outpatient system, rather than an Inpatient one. The number of ER visits, typically an expensive method of health care delivery, have increased greatly in Incline due only to community growth. Overall though, within the entire system, ER visits have remained flat for the last ten years due to a preventive community based approach. Tahoe Forest wishes to have more consistent and less emergent interactions with patients in the system rather than infrequent high emergent visits. This line of thinking can be seen in the new specialties now offered at the IVCH Health Clinic, 7 in total. The concept of regular contact between patient and provider, based on a holistic healthcare approach is better not just for individual patients but also for the system and our community at large.

While critical access hospitals like our own IVCH, do face unique challenges, they also have exceptional buy in from community members and staff all of whom also double as patients and beneficiaries of the local health care system. “One can only wish to get so lucky as to have such a talented and dedicated staff in this community, as well as our volunteers,” noted Louis Ward. Ward explained how recruiting staff to meet demand has not been a challenge as people really seem to want to be in Incline. IVCH also has numerous volunteers who have logged hundreds, if not thousands, of hours helping around the hospital campus. Additionally, the IVCH’s new ER, finished in 2008, was largely possible because of community donations and volunteers. This type of investment from residents it not typical in a more urban setting where the healthcare system and its workers are not as interwoven into the daily fabric of the community. This experience makes outreach programs far more effective which in turn can improve healthcare outcomes and also keep costs down. 

As Incline, and the greater Tahoe region continue to grow, Tahoe Forest is expecting and preparing for additional growth. As this happens, the community hospital here in Incline will likely expand also. Upper management is cognizant of the community culture and the mutual respect between healthcare provider and patient in this small town. Maintaining this connected and caring culture is on the forefront of the new COO’s mind as he looks to the future, “As we grow and change, we are leaning in on staff that have been here a long time to set the trends and outlook. We are being very purposeful around our mindset about community healthcare and what it actually means.” He continued, “Our patients are not a number to us, we have relationships with them, we know them directly. They work in our kid’s schools, we see them about town. Any of those kind of things, lends itself to a healthcare experience that the patient can be confident in.” 

The belief in the importance and necessity of great healthcare for all, with a focus on evolving community needs is why Tahoe Forest exists and is at the forefront of every decision its management team makes. “Every human at some point will experience great pain and discomfort. We do not realize how important healthcare is until you need it,” said Harry Weis. “Outside of our families, timely access to great healthcare is the most important thing in life.”

Residents of Incline Village, Truckee and surrounding areas are lucky to have a healthcare provider and system as adaptable, personal and caring as Tahoe Forest. 

Visit Incline Village General Hospital and Tahoe Forest Health System online.

**This story was originally published in LIVE.WORK.PLAY., IVCBA’s magazine. You can read the latest edition as well as archived issues online.**

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