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Anyone with a little gray in the hair has probably had a medical visit during which the doctor mixed good news with a friendly warning.

"Things are looking pretty good right now, but if you don't pay attention to some of these early warning signs, you could experience problems in the future."

What’s the point?

A report on Northwest Arkansas’ health care system shows the region can ill afford to ignore its development.

And the response from the patient? More times than not, it's probably "Thanks, doc, I'll get right on that."

Then the entire scenario plays out again at the next year's checkup. Sooner or later, much like a TV weather forecast, the doc is going to be right.

Northwest Arkansas' delivery of health care got a similar diagnosis the other day from a nationally known consulting firm, Tripp Umbach. The firm delivered a report to the Northwest Arkansas Council, the private nonprofit organization of business leaders that advocates projects it deems vital to economic strength within the region.

Few Arkansans have the luxury of thinking about health care as a form of economic development. In daily living, health care is a personal matter. And like preplanning a funeral, a matter most want to put off, as though talking about it will speed up the need for it. Also, there's a certain assumption, as with local ambulance service, that it will be there when we need it.

Tripp Umbach responds: Not necessarily.

Even with strong contributions from the region's medical providers, hospitals and educational institutions, the consulting firm found that the Northwest Arkansas health care sector is "underperforming" when it comes to economic impact and key medical services.

Bad news? Maybe, if the patient doesn't respond. But like so many predictions of future challenges, if Northwest Arkansas leaders decide to change behaviors and make smart decisions, there might actually be opportunity to not just survive, but thrive.

"Northwest Arkansas' economic future will be strengthened by health sector growth initiatives," the report says.

What's that mean? In round numbers, the current economic impact of the health care sector is $2.7 billion a year. Sounds good, right? But a similarly populated area like, say, Spokane, Wash., generates about $4.5 billion annually, Tripp Umbach reports. The difference, the firm says, is a lack of specialized health care, sufficient medical education and a shortage of medical research and development.

According to the study, Northwest Arkansas' economy loses $950 million a year because residents travel to hospitals and physicians outside the region for many services they need. Beyond that, the shortcomings of the region's medical services and professionals lack drawing power for people from beyond Benton, Washington and Madison counties.

Building up the health care sector, the report says, can add 6,000 jobs to the region's economy.

"If specialty services are added to satisfy regional demand, we can add more than $2 billion a year to the healthcare economy by 2040 and transform Northwest Arkansas into a thriving healthcare destination," the report states.

What does all this mean to the average resident? It's not like anyone is going to forego medical care out of a sense of loyalty to a region. Goodness, we hope not.

But once the Northwest Arkansas Council sinks its influential teeth into an issue, rest assured in the years ahead it will have an impact on public policy. Think Interstate 49. Think Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport. Think Benton/Washington Regional Public Water Authority, delivering reliable water from Beaver Lake to rural water systems. All issues the organization took a lead in developing.

When the region is watching billions of dollars go elsewhere, it's a no-brainer to examine how to change that, not just from an economic perspective, but in the interest of achieving the highest possible levels of health care for the people who live here. Everyone in Northwest Arkansas benefits when services, medical knowledge and the number of trained professionals expand within the region.

And it strengthens Northwest Arkansas' reputation as a great place to live and work.

In the years ahead, if this report doesn't become a dust collector, the public and private sectors will be engaged in an intensified discussion about how to make its recommendations a reality. That will create opportunities for residents to be engaged with ideas about economic development but also expanded specialty care such as obstetrics/ gynecology, internal medicine, hematology/oncology, cardiac disease, endocrinology, neurology and psychiatry.

We'd bet collecting dust is not in this report's future.

The report outlines a daunting challenge. For example, it recommends expansion of graduate medical education, including the establishment of 200 more medical residencies -- or training slots -- within the region. It proved difficult several years ago for the region's leaders to get a rather small branch of the state's medical school established in Fayetteville. The infrastructure needed for 200 more is significant and expensive. The politics of it -- yes, we're looking toward Little Rock -- will be complex.

But if Northwest Arkansas can devote millions to promoting the arts economy and quality of life issues like extensive bike trails, can it really sit on its hands when it comes to billions of dollars?

Commentary on 01/27/2019

Print Headline: What's the prognosis?

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