NORWAY — Even with the touch screen, the squat, gray medicine cabinet isn’t the most striking of objects in Stephens Memorial Hospital. 

It hardly matters — it may be one of the most important.

Owing in part to the error-reducing procedures the machine has enabled, Stephens Memorial Hospital has been named one of the best rural hospitals in the country by the Leapfrog Group, a national nonprofit. 

The distinction isn’t due to technology alone, according to vice president of clinical services and registered nurse Patricia Cook. 

“We have incredible people here who work as a team. Patients compliment us on being professional, yet friendly. This isn’t just an ordinary hospital,” Cook said in an interview in her office Tuesday. 

The award is given for excellence in hospital safety and quality, as measured through the Leapfrog Group’s 2014 hospital survey.

The distinction is the third such in the hospital’s history, according to Barbara Allen, vice president of development and community relations. It is given to less  than 7 percent of all eligible hospitals — about 1,400 total — according to the group. 

“It’s wonderful, the whole staff feels good about it because you know you’re doing a good job. But being awarded nationally and publicly is a huge honor,” Cook said. 

In all, 94 hospitals were named to the list, and of the 26 top rural hospitals, also called critical access hospitals, nine were Maine facilities, including three operated by SMH’s owner, MaineHealth. Maine has 15 critical access hospitals. 

“These top hospitals represent the best of American health care and deserve to be recognized for their commitment to prioritizing the safety and well-being of their patients,” Leapfrog Group president and CEO Leah Binder said in a news release. 

The group’s survey compares hospitals’ performance on national standards of patient safety, quality, efficiency and management structures that prevent errors, which they say provides “the most comprehensive picture of how patients fare at individual institutions.”

Among quality measures, the group analyzes self-reported information on data-entry protocols to see if they minimize the risk of prescribing the wrong medications, management practices included the number of certified intensive-care unit specialists in emergency rooms, infection rates, survival for high-risk procedures, readmission and length of stay. 

In August, the hospital announced plans to undergo a $10 million expansion to meet a growing need for outpatient care. 

Owing, in part, to receiving the award for a second year in a row is the way the hospital writes and administers medications. 

Orders are entered into a computer — no handwritten notes to misread — that are reviewed by a pharmacist, screened for conflicts with other prescriptions or duplications and, if approved, logged under the patient’s name on the machine.  

A touch of the screen, and a draw pops open, simultaneously opening the corresponding cubbyhole containing the exact medication, among 800 or so different prescriptions. 

Once in hand, a nurse scans the wrist band of the patient to ensure they’ve gone to the right room and presto, the drugs are administered. Lawrence Pierce, the director of pharmacy, said the routine has slashed errors tremendously. 

“It’s unusual to be this automated for a rural, small hospital,” Cook said. 

Leapfrog started recognizing hospitals in 2006; Stephens previously was acknowledged in 2009 and 2013. 

There are financial incentives for a high hospital ranking; insurance providers are more likely to include them in preferred provider network for insurance, while bonuses such as reduced deductibles and government reimbursement programs can be granted. 

Leapfrog’s report and others like it are a marker that Maine’s hospitals rank among the nation’s best, according to Jeff Austin, vice president for governmental affairs at the Maine Hospital Association. 

While the ranking sets an overall benchmark, consumers should do more research on whether the hospital’s specialities meet their individual needs, Austin said.

Beyond the simple accolade, Cook said the award is an important barometer of where the hospital’s care ranks above and beyond accreditation from state and federal regulators. 

“We know how strict Leapfrog is. We look at it every year and say, ‘Wow, it’s tough.’ But we know how important it is,” he said.

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