March 25, 2023
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Dignity Health investment in Central Coast paying off


Gil Stork, left, and Jim Copeland.

Gil Stork, left, and Jim Copeland.

During the past five years, Dignity Health has made methodical moves to bolster the healthcare system in North Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

That strategy has paid off in improved patient care and better facilities. Now health care is emerging as an industry that attracts talent and capital. It’s an industry that has gone from a liability to a long-term asset for attracting business to the region.

For Alan Iftiniuk, CEO of French Hospital Medical Center in SLO, a big piece of the healthcare puzzle fell into place on Nov. 17 when around 250 business and civic leaders gathered to unveil the three-story Copeland Health Education Pavilion, a research and community center that was funded with substantial gifts from the Copeland Family.

The normally low-key Copelands, who built and sold a sporting goods retail empire and remain major investors in downtown San Luis Obispo, turned out for the ribbon-cutting for the 18,000-square-foot pavilion.

The pavilion will pave the way for a new era of “smart technology innovation” at French Hospital, Iftiniuk said.

For Cal Poly and Cuesta College, the pavilion offers a new way for students to connect with the local healthcare system — offering a healthcare version of the hugely popular SLO HotHouse incubator that’s opened in the heart of downtown.

The Copeland Pavilion has labs that can be used for research and even an incubator space for hatching new businesses. Initial teams will study issues around pregnancy and obesity and use the data collected to provide analytics needed to develop prevention programs.

It will also be opened to nonprofits in the region for use for community events and the design includes a large auditorium, meeting rooms and a board room.

Just a few days earlier in Santa Maria, Marian Regional Medical Center CEO Chuck Cova took the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Dignity Health hospital to announce a series of upgrades to a new regional hospital that looked like a daring move when the 191-room facility opened in 2012.

The new hospital opened just as Santa Maria was beginning to recover from a deep recession and civic leaders held their breath as patients were shifted to the new facility. Today, with the city growing and attracting investment from firms like the Towbes Group, which is developing a second large apartment complex in the city, it looks like a smart call.

Marian’s emergency room, the cornerstone of its Level III trauma center, doubled from 16 beds to 32 with the opening of the new hospital three years ago. Now it’s set to grow again and the Nov. 12 presentation underscored that demand has increased roughly 50 percent from about 50,000 patients per year before the new hospital to more than 72,000 last year.

The next phase is to convert some current storage space in the main hospital into an expanded emergency room — adding an additional 15 new beds and other equipment. The emergency room now staffs a neurosurgery unit around the clock, Cova said.

The success of Mission Hope Cancer Center, an affiliated facility on the Marian campus off Main Street, has prompted thinking about a “Mission Heart” facility for cardiac care. “We want to concentrate services into a dedicated site,” Cova said.

One big change is that rather than simply serving the Santa Maria community, the expanded Marian Regional Center is attracting patients from as far away as King City.

Another is that Marian is beginning to build regional clinical partnerships; working with UCLA and Stanford in some areas and building a relationship with the USC Keck School of Medicine to host family practice residents at Marian. Many of those residents stay in the region when they begin to think about setting up practices.

Cova has a broader oversight role over Dignity’s Arroyo Grande Hospital and the Ventura County Dignity Health operations. In Ventura County, Dignity is investing more than $70 million in a new facility at St. John’s Pleasant Valley Hospital in Camarillo and St. John’s CEO Darren Lee continues to develop new programs at its Ventura County flagship, St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Oxnard.

Not so very long ago, the five hospitals that now comprise Dignity’s Central Coast region were separate operations under the Catholic Healthcare West banner.

In the past few years, they’ve concentrated on winning high marks by focusing more closely on patient outcomes, working to bring more patients into the system via the Affordable Care Act and benefiting from strategic partnerships.

For North Santa Barbara County and San Luis Obispo, which struggled for years to attract doctors and provide services, health care has become a swing factor in business retention and economic development.

• Reach Editor Henry Dubroff at