Raising the bar for children’s health care

Sacred Heart CEO Susan Davis wants campaign to build children's hospital to create regional center of excellence

Susan Davis, CEO of Sacred Heart Hospital.

Susan Davis thinks there is a pressing need for a higher level of health care for children in the central Gulf Coast.

She wants to create that place at Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola.

Davis, who became Sacred Heart’s CEO in July 2012, announced an ambitious plan in January to build a $125 million stand alone children’s hospital at Sacred heart’s Ninth Avenue campus. Sacred Heart now operates a 72-bed children’s hospital, but it is contained in the north tower, which also houses adult services.

She wants it to benefit children in the region from Mississippi to Jacksonville.

“We’ve done a lot to build children’s services, but what I want is to bring it all into one building that is a healing place for children,” davis says. “That is built for children, and comfortable for children.”

Now she must sell the concept to Sacred Heart’s parent, Ascension Health, based in St. Louis, Mo., and the greater Pensacola community.

Of the projected $125 million cost of the project, some $55 million will have to be raised within Sacred Heart’s Gulf Coast service area.

Davis spoke to Pensacola Today about the children’s hospital project, and the challenges and opportunities it presents for the community.

Question: You already have a 72-bed children’s wing in the hospital. Why do you need a standalone hospital exclusively for children?

Answer: Sacred Heart for 45 years has had a children’s hospital, and I’m always amazed by the number of people who say to me, “I didn’t know Sacred Heart had a children’s hospital.”

So, as we’ve developed a children’s hospital over the years, one thing we’ve learned about little kids is that they are not adults. They require a very special level of care. They also require a different environment.

Q: What about your demand for children’s services? Is that growing?

A: Yes. We are a regional center for maternal child health. We get admissions for babies who are high-risk from southern Mississippi into south Alabama, all the way to Tallahassee and all across the Panhandle. As a result, our neonatal intensive care unit is full 97 percent of time.  And, at times, we find ourselves having to deny admission because we’re full.

So, generally if we can’t take high-risk, premature babies they have to go to (University of Alabama at Birmingham) or Shands Hospital in Gainesville. And that can be a very difficult experience, and very expensive, for some parents.

Q: So, what are you doing now to address this growing demand for neonatal care?

A: We’ve recently asked ACHA (Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration) for an emergency expansion of 17 beds for our neonatal intensive care unit, and we were granted that expansion.

Q: So, you are convinced you need to greatly expand children’s health care services, and need a separate hospital to do that.  What’s next?

A: We are part of Ascension Health, and once a year we have the opportunity to request major capital improvement project. Building a new NICU would qualify.

Q: How far along are you in the planning of this project?

A: Our architects have been working with us through the planning. And, initially, they came up with a $34 million, 55,000 square-foot, single-story children’s hospital. I sat there and, after looking at the plans, I said, if we’re going to spend that kind of money, we need to incorporate other needs to give a better level of care for kids, and bring all children’s health care services into one location.

Q: What’s your vision of this new hospital?

A: I told architect I want it built tall, I don’t want anybody to ever say “I didn’t know you have a children’s hospital at Sacred Heart.” So when anybody drives down Ninth Avenue they will see that building.

I also want the hospital to be a place that makes children, and their parents, feel as comfortable as possible. If you think about yourself recovering from surgery, it’s not always a pleasant for you, and certainly not for a 2-year-old. So, we need new operating rooms and emergency rooms dedicated to children and designed to appeal to them.

Q If Ascension agrees to green-light this project, it will put up $70 million of the cost. That leaves you with the task of raising $55 million locally. That would be one of the largest, if not the largest, capital funds drives in Pensacola’s recent history. How are you going to get that money?

A: It’s all about the children. It’s all about improving quality of life for children. It’s hard for people to say, “No, I don’t want to see that.” That’s what I’m counting on. I am very much an optimist.

Q: Has Sacred Heart Health System ever undertaken a campaign of this size before?

A: No. We did in Connecticut. In the face of the Great Recession I started a capital campaign in 2007 in Bridgeport, one of the poorest cities in Connecticut. I had to raise $40 million. People said we couldn’t do it. And they were right: We raised $60 million.

Q: Is the campaign under way here in Pensacola? And have you gotten any pledges?

A: Yes. We’ve raised about $8 million so far. The silent phase of the donor campaign is in the works, and the employee campaign has begun.

Q: If you don’t get to $55 million what will you do?

A: I have a plan. I was talking to Quint Studer about this, trying to get some advice. One of the things Quint said to me is: “Think about it. For every dollar you raise here you get two dollars from Ascension. And, so, leverage that. It does speak to people.”

Q: Has Ascension earmarked the $70 million?

A: Not yet. I’ve got two more hurdles to clear before I know we have the money from Ascension. We’ve planned the building so if we get the $70 million from Ascension we will build the shell of the building, and then fill in the shell, floor by floor, as the raise the remaining $55 million. But nothing is going to stop me because it’s for the kids.

Q: When do you hope to get this project under way?

Given the approval cycle for Ascension, we should know by end of May.

Q: Have you begun to talk to contractors and architects?

A: Yes, we’re talking to architects. But we haven’t started talking to contractors. I’ve told our architects I want some whimsical, child-like. I want our building to have lots of bright colors, fire trucks, doll houses, all the things kids love that say will say, “Wow.”

Q: What do you anticipate the economic impact this project will have on the community?

A: We had 400 construction jobs working on the $52 million tower we completed and dedicated last year. I’m not sure how many construction jobs this project would produce, but I would estimate the number of permanent staff positions created would be between 75 and 100, including physicians, nurses, technicians, housekeepers, and food service workers.

Q: It’s often said in health care circles that children’s hospitals are very costly operations that don’t necessarily return a profit. Is that your sense of it, and, if so, does it concern you?

A: Yes, it does concern me, even now as it exists. Fifty-five percent of our kids are Medicaid. But one way to think about this is the fact that, by bringing all children’s care into one location, it’s much more efficient, and there are better outcomes.

Q: In addition to this children’s hospital project, I understand you’re looking into performing transplants here. Can you talk about that some?

A: Yes. We’re working to put a program together. We’re in the process of recruiting surgeon and nephrologist who does transplants, along with social workers. This endeavor also will be creating new jobs.

Q: What is your biggest concern about this project? And, likewise, what is your biggest hope?

A: My biggest hope is that this will enable us to expand and improve access for children and their families for the high level of health care that is very much needed in this community and region. My biggest fear is, I guess, I don’t want to say it’s a fear, but the fundraising aspects is daunting.  But it’s something I’m confident we can achieve because it is for the children.