Physician technology to assist with ultrasound procedures.
Physician technology to assist with ultrasound procedures.

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Secret of the south

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HATTIESBURG MAY NOT BE THE STATE capital nor Mississippi’s largest city. It doesn’t trip off the tongue when listing major southern cities—or remarkable places anywhere in the United States.

Yet in 1976, Hattiesburg’s Forrest General was the first hospital to transmit EKG signal via satellite. It was also the first hospital to establish a chaplaincy program. Here Phillip Rogers, MD used the first insulin pump on a patient, and Tom Messer, MD tested the first use of telemetry (a.k.a. cardiac monitoring). The city 50,000 people call home boasts a cancer center, a heart and lung center, outpatient surgical centers, and an exploding home health-care and assisted-living program. The Rescue 7 Air Ambulance is one of the longest continuously operated systems in our country.

G. Scott Thomas’ The Rating Guide to Life in America’s Great Small Cities ranks Hattiesburg number one nationwide for health care in its category. It ran sixth when measuring availability of doctors and specialists in small communities.

And medicine isn’t its only claim to fame. Thanks to influences ranging from a diverse economy to mild weather, from the University of Southern Mississippi to merit scholars graduating from the public schools, the U.S. Conference of Mayors honored Hattiesburg as America’s Most Livable Small City in the under- 100,000-people category last decade.

“We don’t have mountains, but we have rolling hills. We don’t have a beach, but we have lots of lakes and streams that you can float down in a canoe or swim, ski, or fish,” says Susan Walker, the vice president of the Area Development Partnership. “We have a lot of social clubs and more than 150 churches of all denominations. We’re a very progressive city where people band together to do good things for our community.”

In the hospital halls

The southern hideaway nestled in the southeast corner of Mississippi along I-59 supports two hospitals: Forrest General and Wesley Medical Center. Wesley offers 103 years of history, changing names and locations a few times along the way. Currently owned by Triad (a spin-off of Columbia/HCA, it’s currently the country’s third largest hospital company), it remains the area’s private hospital.

Forrest General, the county’s 537- bed hospital, was considered a medical hub for 300,000 people in the region almost from the day it opened its doors in July, 1952. That day, the facility had 31 doctors and 70 employees on its payroll. Today, more than 250 physicians work here, and 2,800 people staff its halls—halls in a structure 10 times larger than the original 90-bed facility. Here, “centers of excellence” is the watchword, as physicians carve a reputation in the cancer, cardiac, women and children, behavioral health, and neuroscience fields.

Because Hattiesburg Clinic—the largest multi-specialty clinic in the state with 28 satellite clinics—occupies 225,000 square feet in a six-story building, residents could be forgiven for confusing this player with the hospitals, too. Although it began in 1948 as the partnership between an ob/gyn and a general surgeon, today more than 170 board-certified and board-eligible physicians of all specialties call this physician-owned group practice home. The clinic’s key services include an anticoagulation clinic, a breast center, dialysis units, occupational medicine, imaging, an osteoporosis center, and a pacemaker clinic.

It also offers the ingredient Wendell Helveston, MD, a neurologist with the clinic since 1996, says saved him from his University of Mississippi colleagues’ job-hopping tendencies: democracy. “There’s very little of the older physicians feeding on the younger physicians in terms of practice income and policies. It’s very democratic and open,” he explains. “It’s been the single greatest factor in young physicians coming to this clinic and our high retention
rate.”

Totaled, the U.S. Census Bureau’s 1997 economic census lists Hattiesburg with 125 businesses in the health-care and social assistance category, with 56 physician offices, 25 dentists, and 14 “other” health practitioners.

“Our hub status evolved over time, but the root comes from the University of Southern Mississippi. Being a college town attracted professional people, staff and the medical community just grew,” says Ron Cain, the director of physician support services for Wesley Medical Center. “The two hospitals partner on major issues that affect our state and community health care, but we compete for the patient just like any other two businesses. It’s the kind of competition that breeds quality—we think both hospitals are as good as they are because the other one sits across town, making us better,” he says.

Most physicians hold privileges at both hospitals, however, so no one has drawn a definitive line in the sand.  “Physicians who may not use our hospital as much as Forrest serve on our boards and our committees,” Cain shrugs. “Hattiesburg is a real medical anomaly.”

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Julie Sturgeon

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