As part of the 50th anniversary of KLAS, we're taking a look back at some of the challenges that have faced the medical community of Las Vegas over the past few decades. I spoke with retired chief health officer, Otto Ravenholt, who stood at the helm of public health in our community for 35 years.
In the 1950's, this sleepy desert town was changing dramatically...but the glamorous facade hid an ugly reality. Las Vegas's medical community was struggling to keep up with a growing population.
In 1963, Dr. Otto Ravenholt became the county's first chief health officer. He had to bring a backward system up to speed to tackle a host of issues... including influenza, tuberculosis, mumps, and a touchy subject then, sexually transmitted disease.
Dr: Ravenholt says, "The problem is not one you can solve and be finished with. So what we did was to create a five day a week venereal disease treatment program that was on a walk in basis and free of charge. The result was we'd see as many as 50 patients in a day. And we kept that program going for the 35 years that I was there."
It would be twenty years later that the most frightening STD of all would surface. Dr. Ravenholt says the Las Vegas medical community handled the onset of AIDS admirably:
"I think we, in LV, really had a first rate HIV response. It included that fact that the county hospital, Southern NV Memorial which is now UMC, always had an open door and a single program that provided first class care to all HIV patients without getting caught up in the question of what money they had."
Another area of concern over the past few decades has been mental health. There would eventually be a local psychiatric unit at the county hospital... but prior to that -- a mental health problem was diagnosed behind bars.
Dr. Ravenholt says, "Early in Las Vegas history, the jail had a padded cell which was the mental care facility and memorial created its' closed unit. And only in the last dozen years has the state program picked up to where it became the holding facility.
Looking toward the future, Dr. Ravenholt warns that the Las Vegas medical community should prepare itself for global scourges--like SARS--and for acts of bio-terrorism. He also considers the medical malpractice issue to a stumbling block to local health care.
But overall he says the health care has improved tremendously since the first day he arrived in Las Vegas.
"Southern Nevada has changed dramatically. We started with very limited hospital facilities 40 years ago and here we are in 2003 with excess hospital capacity almost. Most of it is private and competitive. But basically, high quality facilities spaced nicely around the communities. And of course we've had an influx of many doctors to provide the professional side of it. Short on nurses and now resting the very real problems of malpractice costs that are causing some doctors to leave and others to reduce what they're doing or even retire. That's a serious problem that needs attention. But, the quality of care available in las vegas has improved.
There are several books available that touch on the medical history of Las Vegas. Published through Greasewood Press, they include Pestilence, Politics and Pizazz -- and Good Medicine. You'll find more titles published by Greasewood and the University of Nevada Press on the following website:Greasewood Press