Charlotte has two large, competitive nonprofit hospital systems – the public Carolinas HealthCare System and the private Novant Health. They own all the hospitals in Mecklenburg County and most of the doctors’ offices, so it’s important to make sure that your health insurance covers the practitioners and the locations you choose.
There’s no four-year medical school in Charlotte, but local training programs for doctors and nurses produce many practitioners who stay in the area. In addition, highly respected cancer and heart centers in Charlotte also attract many top-notch doctors from some of the most prestigious medical centers in the country.
Here are some highlights about the Charlotte health care scene:
1. Carolinas HealthCare, the largest hospital group in the region, just completed a transition in leadership, the first in 14 years. Michael Tarwater, 62, who had been with the system for 35 years, retired at the end of June after serving as chief executive officer since 2002.
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His successor is Gene Woods, 51, who has more than 30 years of health care experience, most recently as chief operating officer of CHRISTUS Health in Irving, Tex., a nonprofit, Catholic system with more than 50 hospitals and long-term care facilities in the United States, Mexico and South America.
Woods becomes the third CEO of Carolinas HealthCare, a $9 billion public, nonprofit enterprise with about 40 hospitals and 60,000 employees across North Carolina and South Carolina. Earlier leaders were called directors who basically managed a single charity hospital, Charlotte Memorial (now Carolinas Medical Center), according to “A Great, Public Compassion,” a history of the hospital group.
The first CEO was the late Harry Nurkin, who arrived in 1981 and began the turnaround – to a large system of health care facilities – that continued under his protege, Tarwater.
After multiple changes over the years, most hospitals in the system now have names that begin with Carolinas HealthCare System, followed by the location, such as University, Pineville or Lincolnton. But there are some notable exceptions. The flagship hospital remains Carolinas Medical Center, aka CMC. And the former Mercy Hospital, acquired from the Sisters of Mercy in the mid-1990s, remains Carolinas Medical Center-Mercy, or CMC-Mercy.
2. Charlotte is the largest U.S. city without a four-year medical school. But that doesn’t mean you won’t encounter medical students and residents at local hospitals and doctors’ offices.
Novant Health, the area’s second-largest hospital system, is for the first time this year offering residency training for doctors specializing in family medicine. Six medical school graduates started the three-year program July 1. They’ll work in community clinics and at Novant Health’s Presbyterian Medical Center, Hemby Children’s Hospital and Huntersville Medical Center.
Based in Winston-Salem, Novant Health was created in 1997 by the merger of Presbyterian Healthcare in Charlotte and Carolina Medicorp Inc. in Winston-Salem. The name Novant was created by combining two Latin words and one French: Nova (meaning star), Novateur (meaning innovator), and Avant (meaning in advance of or in front of).
The Novant Health residency program joins others that have been operated by Carolinas HealthCare since the 1940s. CMC is home base for about 300 residents and fellows in more than 30 medical specialties. NorthEast medical center in Concord has run a family medicine residency program since 1996, before it became part of Carolinas HealthCare.
Carolinas HealthCare also operates a regional campus of UNC Chapel Hill medical school, called the UNC School of Medicine Charlotte Campus. Created in 2010, it trains about 60 third- and fourth-year medical students annually. Other medical students rotate through various hospital settings, bringing the total number of students on campus to about 230 per year.
3. Charlotte doesn’t have a VA hospital – the closest are in Salisbury and Columbia. But a new $104 million, five-story Charlotte VA Health Care Center opened in April on 35 acres off Tyvola Road west of Interstate 77.
The L-shaped building is dramatic, punctuated by a two-story entrance with a semicircular tower of glass. It’s one of the largest VA health centers in the country and offers outpatient services only, such as radiology, kidney dialysis, a pharmacy, and clinics for primary care, dentistry, optometry, audiology, dermatology and mental health. Outpatient surgery will be offered in the future.
The new center, at 3506 Tyvola Road, is the second VA outpatient center in Charlotte. The 10-year-old VA health center at 8601 University East Drive continues to operate on a scaled-down basis, offering primary care. Veterans who need specialty care are referred to the new health center, which has a surface parking lot with more than 1,900 spaces.
Veterans can enroll for care at www.explore.va.gov or fill out applications at the Charlotte VA Health Care Center. Contact: 704-329-1300.
4. Finding mental health services can be confusing and difficult, partly because there continues to be a shortage of psychiatrists and available beds for those who need hospitalization. Some steps have been taken to ease the problem.
In 2014, Carolinas HealthCare opened a 66-bed psychiatric hospital, for adults only, in the north Mecklenburg town of Davidson.
Carolinas HealthCare also owns the 66-bed behavioral health hospital on Billingsley Road, which has the state’s only psychiatric emergency room. For decades, that hospital was owned by Mecklenburg County, but Carolinas HealthCare took ownership in 2012. Novant Health also offers 75 psychiatric beds at Presbyterian Medical Center.
To reduce the need for inpatient psychiatric care, Carolinas HealthCare has launched a program to integrate behavioral health care into primary care settings. The hope is that patients will be diagnosed earlier and receive prompt treatment before they reach a crisis and require hospitalization.
Instead of embedding a psychiatrist in every primary care practice, Carolinas HealthCare created a team of psychiatrists, pharmacists and other specialists to educate primary care doctors to recognize symptoms of mental illness and know which medicines to prescribe and in what doses.
In 2017, Carolinas HealthCare will start its first class of three psychiatric residents, paid for in part by a $3 million gift from the Leon Levine Foundation to help reduce the shortage of physicians providing behavioral health services in the region.
With support from both hospital systems, Charlotte businessman Bill Blue and his wife, Betsy, launched HopeWay Foundation to fill a gap in residential and day treatment for adults with mental illness. The HopeWay campus – with rooms for 36 residential clients and space for 50 additional day clients – is scheduled to open later this year in southeast Charlotte.
5. Charlotte has a conservative medical culture, but it’s also embracing “integrative” medicine and virtual medical care.
Private practitioners offer acupuncture, homeopathy, naturopathy and other therapies using herbal medicines and energy balancing techniques. The surprise is that mainstream hospitals also offer some of these therapies.
In 2011, CMC-Mercy achieved designation as a Planetree hospital, which means its staff is trained in “patient-centered” care and patients are offered massage therapy, music therapy and aromatherapy. At Levine Cancer Institute, cancer patients can get free massage therapy or acupuncture for a small fee. They can also get free classes in yoga, tai chi or mindfulness and meditation.
Both Carolinas HealthCare and Novant Health offer virtual connections between doctors and patients through video or email on computers, tablets and smart phones. Carolinas HealthCare also has a virtual ICU in a Mint Hill office park, where specialized doctors and nurses connect via computer to intensive care units around the region.
Karen Garloch has written about health issues for the Observer since 1987.