Written by Janice Hoppe
Rockford Spine Center prides itself on an efficiently run practice and cutting-edge research that it hopes will revolutionize the healthcare industry. “We put together a university-style spine center with everything under one roof where we perform high-level spine surgery and treatments,” Dr. Fred Sweet says, “but there are major challenges for everyone in healthcare that are threatening places like us to survive over the next five to 10 years.”
The Rockford, Ill.-based practice was founded in 2003 by Drs. Sweet, Michael Roh and Christopher Sliva. The fellowship-trained spine surgeons had a vision to create a comprehensive care facility dedicated solely to spinal care with treatment services all under one roof. Rockford Spine Center’s state-of-the-art facility offers a comprehensive care setting where patients can be tested, diagnosed, consulted with and treated during a single visit.
“We put everything under one roof to control the quality of patient care and convenience,” Sweet says. “We do our own readings, for example, and are accredited by the American College of Radiology. We offer the best images you can get anywhere and combined services with top-notch experts.”
Over the years, Rockford Spine Center has transformed its practice into an efficient, well-oiled machine, Sweet says. “Our schedulers are patient care representatives that take a patient’s medical history, history on their spine problems, what treatments they have received, tests run by other physicians and insurance information,” he adds. “Our physicians review the information and determine if there’s anything else we need to arrange so when they step in we have everything we need to solve their problem.”
The scheduling process can take 30 to 40 minutes, but because Rockford Spine Center offers all treatments and tests the patient would need in-house, it saves patients four to 12 weeks of going to other locations for various tests or treatments. “We have everything well coordinated and a lot of experts, but our orchestration and organization is very efficient,” Sweet says. “That’s one thing that puts us head and shoulders above our counterparts is our business efficiency. Our efficiency is good for the patients and results in high volume for the surgeons.”
Rockford Spine Center’s efficiency helps it stay in the high 90th percentile of similar spine surgery practices. For the past nine years, Healthgrade has named the practice among the top 10 percent in the country in terms of patient discharge data and low complication rates. “We are financially healthy and we also put out really, really good outcomes for the patients,” Sweet notes.
Patients around the world are attracted to the practice through word-of-mouth, physician referrals and other surgeons. Rockford Spine Center has treated patients throughout the United States, as well as patients from Saudi Arabia, Africa, China and South America. “We have two sets of international patients: ones who have the means to see us and the ones we see through our missionary work,” Sweet says.
Rockford Spine Center has published several cutting-edge research papers in the past few years. Four years ago, for example, the practice completed a 10-year study on reducing infections by putting powder directly in the wound. There are now 30 confirmatory studies across the country,” Sweet says. “I’ve completed another study that is about to be published that was an animal study in rats. It looked at putting antibiotic powders in the wound to keep infection rates low and reduce MRSA and other resistant bugs,” he adds. “Once we get FDA approval, we are going to do several studies and perform the same study in humans.”
The practice is also working on a new technique to reduce blood loss and complications to correct spinal deformities. “That’s the kind of research we do here,” Sweet notes. “We present at international meetings and from time to time are invited to teach other surgeons advanced spine surgical techniques.”
Rockford Spine Center has state-of-the-art technology to provide the best patient care. The practice was the first in the nation to receive the Samsung wireless digital X-ray machine this year, which improves patient safety and digital photo quality to aid in diagnosing spinal conditions.
The Samsung Dual Detector GC80 is a wireless robotic system that lowers the radiation dose to patients by 30 to 50 percent while still providing a superior digital photo. “It’s high-speed, high-quality X-rays with extremely low dose radiation,” Sweet adds. “We have the most technologically advanced clinical X-ray machine in the whole country.”
The whole healthcare industry is struggling with insurance reform and, Sweet says, it is challenging for private practices and hospitals to stay ahead. For example, some Affordable Care Act plans have a $7,000 deductible that most people cannot afford and federally funded programs are reducing reimbursements. “That comes out of our bottom line and we take a huge hit, but the alternative is the patient doesn’t receive care and suffers,” Sweet says. “Medicare reimburses an MRI at about $50 to $60 per patient and that’s because we read them ourselves. If we didn’t, it would be $100 to $120.”
Insurance companies have also made it harder to get surgeries approved, Sweet says. “Insurance requirements are financially eroding away our ability to take care of patients and creating financial disincentives to get treatment,” he adds. “That’s one big mess.”
Because of the reduction in reimbursements and insurance restrictions, Sweet says more private practices are closing their doors because they can’t keep up and surgeons are going back to work as an employee of hospitals. “The surgeons are not as motivated working for a hospital versus a private practice, so they are not motivated to do as much as they did before,” he explains. “Private practices are declining significantly and because of insurance and decreased reimbursements it will become financially less likely they can sustain.”
For the past two years, Sweet has been working with implant manufacturers to produce high-quality implants at a fourth of the cost to reduce the cost of spine surgery by half. “This is a win for the insurance companies, us, patients and the hospitals, but the insurance companies and hospitals are so overwhelmed with the rapidly changing healthcare I haven’t been able to develop partnerships with healthcare facilities,” he says. “I have a program that could save many thousands of dollars with every patient and I can’t get anywhere. It’s very frustrating.”
Rockford Spine Center will continue to provide exceptional patient care, focus on cutting-edge research and take day by day the challenges brought on by insurance companies and healthcare regulations. “I would like to see the implant program get underway so we can provide high-quality, low-cost spine surgery and stand out as a practice of excellence with the best patient outcomes and the lowest cost of surgery,” Sweet says. “If we can do this we can survive.”