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RED LODGE — At 6 a.m. on Thursday, the first patient will be moved into the new $18.2 million Beartooth Billings Clinic.

The carefully choreographed transfer from Beartooth Hospital to Beartooth Billings Clinic will punctuate the overarching goal of this medical mission: improved patient care.

“This is an opportunity to show our patients our appreciation for choosing local care,” said Dr. Bill George, chief of staff.

The 20-acre, 48,000-square-foot facility, located at 2525 N. Broadway in Red Lodge, “has become the face of the community,” said John Overton, who has lived in Red Lodge for 11 years.

It is the first new hospital in the state since March 2009, when a hospital was built in Ennis, according to the Montana Office of Rural Health and Area Health Education Center. A new hospital was built in Whitefish within the past five years and a new facility in Malta about eight years ago, according to the office's records.

Over the past several years, many rural hospitals in Montana have either built new facilities, added on to the existing hospital or done extensive remodeling. The most basic reason is the need to provide quality health care to residents living in the community, county and market area of the hospital, said Frank Newman, associate director of the Montana Office of Rural Health.

In addition to Red Lodge, Ennis, Whitefish and Malta, other examples of rural hospital construction in recent years include the communities of Plains, Anaconda, Hamilton, Big Timber, White Sulphur Springs and Glendive.

Several other hospitals plan to build new facilities, including Livingston, Dillon and Libby.

Many of the community hospitals in Montana were built several decades ago, so it is not unusual that there is a need to remodel, expand or replace aging facilities.

“It definitely shows that communities value and support the health care services they are receiving with the commitment made to take on these major building projects,” Newman said. “Providing access to health care at the local level provides high quality jobs and expands the economic base of the community.”

The new hospital in Red Lodge is rural health care personified.

“When you say the words 'rural health care,' it's not necessarily a doctor in a small town,” said Maggie Karas, community relations coordinator and former chair of the hospital's governing board of directors. “It's the entire community caring for each other.”

And care they do. Behind the bricks and mortar of the new facility, high-tech sterilized equipment and exam rooms were a group of about 110 employees.

Early in the process, they raised more than $130,000 among them to help ensure that the community of 2,400 people retained its hospital.

“If employees are that committed, that they would take money out of their own pockets to help build a new hospital, obviously the level of care our patients receive will match that commitment. We wanted to keep a hospital in our community,” Karas said. “By integrating with Billings Clinic, we were able to do that.”

Because of their efforts, $3.2 million in pledges from the Beartooth Hospital Foundation, more than $1 million in grants, financial aid from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the offer of a loan, if needed, from Billings Clinic, Thursday will go down as the day that health care was revolutionized in Carbon County and surrounding areas. CEO Kelley Evans has called it “historic.”

On Nov. 6, Beartooth Hospital and Health Center and Billings Clinic Red Lodge cut the ribbon on the facility under its new name, Beartooth Billings Clinic. Both hospital and clinic services will be available under one roof.

“It makes a big difference when a doctor is 30 yards down the hall as opposed to two miles down the road,” George said. “We will be able to tap into Billings Clinic's expertise and benefit from Billings Clinic's digital radiology and telemedicine capabilities.”

The hospital, which has an average daily census of four to six patients, will now be able to access the Billings Clinic's electronic record system.

“That's huge,” George said.

Before the electronic medical record, there was more fragmentation, and it was more labor-intensive to access a patient's comprehensive medical history and critical data. Beartooth Billings Clinic will now have access to a patient's detailed medical history, allergies and current medications.

That is particularly beneficial in Red Lodge, where the injury rate is high because of the vast array of outdoor activities in the area, including snow sports, hiking, mountain biking, camping, fishing and more. There is also a high incidence of agriculture accidents.

“We've set the stage for collaboration instead of competition,” Kelley said.

Contact Cindy Uken at cuken@billingsgazette.com or 657-1287.

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Contact Cindy Uken at cuken@billingsgazette.com or 657-1287.

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