In his third quarterly town hall this year, County Executive Allan Kittleman was joined by Howard County General Hospital President Steve Snelgrove in addressing health care concerns Tuesday night.
Those concerns ranged from services at the county's sole community hospital to how the county is prepared to tackle a major public health disaster.
Snelgrove kicked off the night showcasing the hospital's amenities and its planned $40 million expansion that is slated to add 36,000 square feet to the campus.
Snelgrove said the hospital is set to face a major hurdle in the coming years as a large number of Howard County's baby boomer residents continue to age and need more services.
"Our 55-plus population is going to grow over the next five years by 22 percent," Snelgrove said. "As people age, naturally they consume more health care costs."
The hospital is currently allowed 267 beds, but only has 244 physical beds in the building, according to Snelgrove. The number of beds allowed in the hospital is determined annually based on the previous year's occupancy numbers.
This number is not enough to provide residents with private rooms and the highest quality service, Snelgrove said, and the hospital is in need of more support and more beds as the county continues to grow. Snelgrove also spoke about this issue at Monday night's County Council session, where he said that as the population grows at a rate twice that of the rest of the state, the hospital lacks the resources currently to keep up and needs greater support from the county.
Following the presentation, residents asked Kittleman and Snelgrove about their strategies to address a variety of health care concerns in the county.
Many of the questions came from members of the county's deaf community, who expressed concerns about the quality and availability of certified interpreters in the hospital.
Kathryn Harrington, a member of the Howard County Association of the Deaf, told Kittleman and Snelgrove that there needs to be additional on-call, in-person interpreters to help patients and doctors communicate, rather than relying on video remote interpreting, an internet-based video conferencing with an interpreter in another location. Harrington said during the town hall that the technology is not always reliable, and can lead to poor communication between doctors and patients.
Other deaf residents expressed concern that the in-person interpreters in the hospital were not always well-qualified, and told stories of interpreters badly misinterpreting doctors' explanations to patients, leading to confusion and anxiety.
"There has to be some way to have some sort of training just so [doctors and nurses] know how they can direct their communication to a deaf person," one resident said. "Not so that doctors and nurses can learn ASL, but just to know that deaf patients are humans, too, and patients you talk directly to."
Snelgrove said the hospital plans to switch its contract with an interpreter company in December, and that all interpreters will now be certified by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.He said this should ensure a higher quality of interpreters.
Others want to know how the hospital would keep up with the increased population as development continues in the county. Members of the Howard County Citizens Association, including President Stu Kohn, said they wanted to see the hospital become linked to the county's adequate public facilities ordinance, or APFO, legislation that works to ensure the county's public infrastructure keeps pace with the population.
Kittleman said he agrees something needs to be done to ensure the hospital has the money and resources to fully serve the growing county, but APFO was not the appropriate way to do so, since the legislation is meant for public facilities, and the hospital is privately owned.
Resident Tim Lattimer also asked about the county's strategies for dealing with potential public health crises caused by natural disaster emergencies, and what the county is doing to prepare itself against a possible growth in disasters, which he said could be a result of climate change.
Director of the Office of Emergency Management Ryan Miller said the county works constantly to practice its emergency response procedures, which it has successfully deployed in past events such as 2016's Ellicott City flood. Kittleman also said that the county is currently in the process of hiring an energy manager to help each department work as energy efficiently as possible; he said they hope to fill the post by January.
The final topic discussed was the status of the county's location search for its first residential detox center. Kittleman said that the county's team, headed by Health Officer Maura Rossman and Director of Policy and Programs Carl DeLorenzo, is still working to choose a location. Rossman also said that in the past year, the county has increased its outpatient providers by 50 percent as it continues to search for a location for the residential center.
"We're not anywhere near solving this problem, but I think we've at least, at this point, begun to fill in some gaps," Rossman said.