Lab technicians looking through microscopes

Growth & Technology


In November of 1999, WRTV-6 featured the new $800k pharmacy robot at Columbus Regional Hospital.

Technology and Growth: 100 years of Constant Advancement

By June 7 of 1917, the Bartholomew County Hospital had already been open for more than four months, but a good portion of the people it was intended to serve were unsure of what it could do for them. Evidence of that can be found in a short two paragraph story which appeared on page 8 of The Evening Republican on that date under a double headline:

“But few patients in county hospital now

“Less than half dozen there at close of May – Hospital trustee corrects wrong impression”

It was the second paragraph of the story that detailed the confusion:

“Hospital officials explain that the people of the county have a mistaken belief about the institution. They say most people think the county hospital is merely a place where surgical operations are to be performed. ‘That is a wrong impression,’ said one of the trustees. ‘We want people to learn that anyone who is sick and wants both quiet and attention, can get them at the county hospital at reasonable rates. The hospital is for sick people as much as it is for surgical cases.’”

Hints of that situation surfaced in the first week the hospital was open. In a Feb. 8, 1917 story, The Evening Republican reported, “three operations were performed at the hospital this morning.” It went on to add, “So many people have been waiting on operations, because of no hospital facilities here, that local surgeons will have an average of three operations each morning for the next three or four weeks.”

Advanced as the surgical procedures might have been for a people still living in a largely agrarian age, the tools the hospital had available for treating sick people were relatively primitive. That was demonstrated a year after the 1917 opening, when Bartholomew County and the rest of the world fell victim to the worst medical emergency in centuries – the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918.

Statistics tell only a part of the devastation that fell upon the earth. It is estimated that 50 to 100 million people died of the disease in 1918 alone. In comparison, combat deaths in all of World War I numbered approximately 16 million.

That number can be brought close to home. Bartholomew County had 32 deaths of servicemen during the global conflict. Of that number, 23 were claimed by the Spanish Flu. There are no exact statistics as to civilian casualties in Bartholomew County but throughout the span of the outbreak in 1918, The Evening Republican was filled with tragic stories of Spanish Flu deaths. Most of those deaths took place in homes. Once infected, the victims were often cared for by family members, the disease in many instances, spreading to include them. Few of the victims made it to the still young hospital and even though their disease might have been isolated, there was little that could be done beyond keeping them apart from other patients and hoping for the best.

Some of the proposed cures that surfaced reflected the inability of even the medical profession to cope with the situation. In neighboring Shelbyville, city officials proposed that prohibition laws be relaxed so that whiskey confiscated by police could be used in the treatment of the flu. The Evening Republican news staff conducted a survey of local physicians and found all but one believed alcohol was an effective approach. Eventually, the 1918 pandemic ran its course and the new Bartholomew County Hospital began a slow but sustained period of growth in both the physical campus, and the services provided. Still, there were limits as to what it could do in the treatment of serious diseases. That was illustrated in the 1950s when the word polio became a part of the national vocabulary. The outbreak of the disease had similar psychological effects as the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. Entire communities fell victim to the fear and paranoia which swept the country. The first wave hit Bartholomew County in 1952, when reports began to appear in The Evening Republican newspaper. By early August of that year, health authorities reported five cases in the county. By the end of the month the number had jumped to nine, including a 3-year-old boy who died of the disease. It had jumped to 17 by the end of September.

As was the case with the Spanish Flu pandemic, statistics as to the exact number of polio victims are limited. In 1957, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (polio's formal name) listed 52 polio victims living in Bartholomew County. Many of the victims were admitted to Bartholomew County Hospital, but the more advanced cases had to be transferred to larger hospitals in Indianapolis which were equipped with such devices as iron lungs in which patients from the neck down were encased in a cylindrical machine which assisted their breathing functions. Although the iron lung was demonstrated to hospital staff in 1950, prior to the local outbreak, Bartholomew County Hospital never acquired one of the devices.

Despite the absence of many technological advances and saddled with the perception that it served as a way station for larger and better equipped facilities, Bartholomew County Hospital did experience dramatic growth in the second half of the 20th century. In 1965, 12,524 patients were admitted and 56,147 outpatients were treated. That triggered a construction boom, which included several additions and renovations aimed at meeting the increased patient load. But as the campus expanded, so did the number of services made available, including: the opening of an intensive coronary care unit, expansion in radiology and ambulatory services and a partnership for helicopter service in the 1970s; followed by dedicated labor and delivery rooms, a psychiatric ward and the adoption of a paramedic program in the 1980s.

The changes adopted by the hospital trustees and staff in the second half of the 20th century served as a launching pad for an even more strategic approach, which became effective in 1992 with the changing of Bartholomew County Hospital to Columbus Regional Hospital. That signaled even more dramatic changes on the path to becoming a destination health care facility. Some highlights of the past 25 years include advancements and innovations within the hospital walls, such as the addition of robots – Robot Rx and MedCarousel – in the pharmacy, making the process of pulling, dispensing and delivering medications to patients safer and more efficient; wrist-band infant security system and automated “tube” transport system for safe and efficient placement and delivery of laboratory and pharmacy orders.

However, perhaps the biggest transitions within the last 30 years can be realized in the gradual and deliberate move from a hospital to a comprehensive health system with service expansions including the opening of the Breast Health Center, Cancer Center and Volunteers in Medicine in the 1990s, and since early 2000, the Wellness Center programing, WellConnect and more than 20 physician practices and counting. The advancements and expansion of services and technology provided continues, as within the last two years, Columbus Regional Health expanded its Cancer Center, including a $3 million-plus upgrade in state-of-the-art radiation equipment and software and opened a new, larger Emergency Department with dedicated radiation suite. These advances tell only a part of the ever evolving vision of years of strong leadership and passionate, loyal employees in the story of the transformation from what once was “a county hospital” to a broad extending regional health care center, which can now justifiably be described as a “destination.”