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A new process for handling medical waste is coming to the Regional Health Rapid City Hospital.

Will Rogers advised: “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”

Seems obvious but sometimes not.

Regional Health eventually had to look beyond obvious solutions to fix its vexing medical waste issues. Rapid City Hospital announced this week it will spend $2.3 million on an ozone-based system that shreds and sterilizes all hospital waste before safely sending it to the city landfill.

Increased hospital training and other management programs had repeatedly failed to prevent small amounts of medical waste from reaching the landfill. The failures resulted in fines, threatened state permits and even endangered federal revenue streams.

Regional Health eventually resorted to sorting trash at a transfer facility before sending most bags 300 miles away to a Nebraska landfill.

The new system, which uses non-polluting ozone to quickly oxidize and permanently neutralize harmful bacteria, promises to be both an effective and efficient fix. Ozone, which is also produced when lightning charges air, quickly reverts to normal air, making the process safe.

Regional Health’s ability to finally solve its stubborn garbage problem offers proof the hospital system has stopped digging holes and started filling them. If it can do this, it can do much more.

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A hospital system that can’t prevent potentially infectious bags of waste from mixing with its regular trash probably also struggles with far more complex issues like medical records management, infection control, preventable readmissions and strict adherence to medication protocols.

For a few years, Regional Health seemed nearly as bent on digging public relations holes as it was on groundbreaking ceremonies for $400 million in new construction. The controversies included unfortunate mental health admission policies, required patient diversions, ongoing nursing shortages, and the firing of former system CEO Brent Phillips for unspecified “personnel issues” last July.

Now that the dust is settling, let’s take notice of the health system’s positive strides. New Regional Health CEO Paulette Davidson recently outlined changes that — combined with this new announcement — should begin to restore confidence. Regional's Behavioral Health Center has been remodeled to add eight more beds so staff there can see more patients. The nursing shortage was alleviated by hiring 40 nurses from the Philippines. The completion of a new Rapid City Hospital emergency department should further reduce patient diversions.

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Health system goals have also changed, re-emphasizing care and a positive workplace in addition to economic efficiency.

Regional Health is the largest private employer in western South Dakota, operating five hospitals and 24 clinic locations that employ nearly 5,000 physicians and caregivers. More than that, it is the major health system of first resort for residents throughout western South Dakota plus parts of Wyoming, Nebraska and North Dakota.

Economic development throughout the Black Hills depends on the success of Regional Health. We all depend on its success.

The Journal was quick to draw attention to the past failures. It’s time we acknowledge the real progress and show appreciation. We look forward to its brightening future.

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