Howard County General Hospital's decision to join an alliance of area hospitals to expand its services and compete more effectively is another major step in its evolution. Even without the tangible benefits that will come from joining forces with such local heavy hitters as Johns Hopkins Hospital, the alliance raises the profile of one of the county's most important institutions. It will increase the hospital's ability to draw from throughout the Baltimore region by offering specialized services that already exist or are sure to be developed.
The idea behind the alliance is simple. Hospitals can do more when they jointly offer non-competing services to attract the largest number of insurers at the lowest costs. In Howard's case, its agreement with the Atlantic Health alliance -- which includes Hopkins and several other area hospitals -- is not a merger. The hospital will maintain its autonomy in day-to-day operations, a plus in this early phase. One of Howard County General's assets has been its strong community focus, something that should continue and even improve under the new alliance.
The alliance, however, does present some pit falls for Howard. While strict autonomy may not be an issue, the hospital's reliance on other institutions could cause it to avoid expanding into some areas. Too strong of a reliance could erode the hospital's comprehensive nature.
Still, there is an immediate benefit in Howard residents' having easy access to the broad complement of services offered at various hospitals. It is doubtful that Howard would ever find it cost-effective, for example, to develop a cardiac surgery unit similar to Hopkins; nor should it. Howard has already benefited from an agreement with the University of Maryland Medical Center, establishing a regional oncology center to serve area residents. Plans to open a rehabilitation center for occupational, physical and speech therapy are also a plus of the alliance.
In the end, the alliance represents an almost inevitable step for the hospital. Like many similar agreements, it will allow the hospital to compete more effectively in the increasingly tough health care arena and continue developing its own specialized services even as it relies on other services offered by area hospitals. On balance, it's a positive step.