ST. CHARLES — Ending childbirth services and some complex surgeries at SSM Health St. Joseph, while controversial, are necessary steps to ensure quality patient care and secure the future of the long-established hospital in downtown St. Charles, the hospital’s president said Thursday.
“Our desire is to be here for another 130-plus years, and we think that these strategies are going to enable us to do so,” said Lisle Wescott.
SSM Health, in a move that alarmed some local government and business leaders, on Wednesday announced the hospital’s labor and delivery services would be moved to the health system’s DePaul Hospital in Bridgeton and St. Joseph Hospital in Lake Saint Louis, which both have newly remodeled birthing suites.
The 333-bed hospital also said it will no longer maintain a 24-hour team of specialists required to handle serious trauma cases, such as severe car accident injuries and gunshot wounds. Cardiac surgery and complex neurosurgery no longer take place at the hospital.
DePaul Hospital will become the centralized site for those surgery and trauma cases, according to the announcement.
Wescott said the complex neurosurgery and cardiac surgeries (which does not include routine cardiac monitoring or treatment for heart attacks or strokes) have become few and far between, making it hard to attract physicians and sharpen their skills with practice. Serious trauma cases also make up a very small percentage of emergencies at the hospital.
Births have also been declining, she said. Last year, about 500 babies were delivered at the hospital, while more than double that number were delivered at Lake Saint Louis or DePaul.
“There are lot of services that are going stay in this hospital. These strategies are really built around insuring high-quality, accessible care for our most complex, and then using our community hospitals like St. Joseph St. Charles and St. Joseph Lake Saint Louis as really the accessible community hospitals for growth,” Wescott said.
Still, she said, change is hard when those services have long been a part of the hospital.
“They are in our DNA and the fabric of this hospital. The community has grown to count on those services being close to home. It’s a heavy day. It’s heavy for our community, it’s heavy for our staff,” she said.
Duplicating staff and services that are in short supply at two hospitals within 6 miles of each other did not make sense, officials said.
“The reality is, health care is constantly changing,” said Candace Jennings, SSM Health region president of community services, in a press release. “It is not the same industry it was 10 or even five years ago. We must listen to our patients and create a care environment that meets their needs while allowing our physicians the opportunity to grow and improve so they can continue to provide the exceptional care our community deserves.”
Hospitals run on very tight margins and constantly evaluate services, said Dave Dillon, spokesman for the Missouri Hospital Association.
“When similar services are available nearby, and the cost of running a very expensive service becomes unsustainable, it makes sense to focus on the lines that have higher levels of patient utilization,” he said. “In a metro area, a service line closure seldom reduces overall capacity, and can lead to a more efficient use of health care resources overall.”
SSM officials said the changes will not take place immediately, “but will happen over time.”
Local officials concerned
Despite SSM’s assurances, local government and business leaders were concerned by the moves.
“I don’t know anything about the hospital business, but as a layman, it doesn’t make sense to me that they would be closing anything in a jurisdiction with over 400,000 people that is growing by 5,000 people a year,” St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann said. “We’re going to set a record for new single-family housing starts. Seems to me this should be an area where we are adding services, not eliminating them.”
Ehlmann, 69, was born at the hospital, along with his father and two sons. Local community and government leaders do not work as closely with the hospital as they did in the past, he said.
“It served an entire community, and an entire community helped support it,” the county executive said, “and it’s just different now, I guess. Decisions are made by a corporate board.”
Scott Tate, president of the Greater St. Charles County Chamber of Commerce, said he understands the changes from a business perspective, especially as the area around St. Charles tends to be older adults who are no longer having children.
But, Tate said, St. Charles was second to O’Fallon, Missouri, in new housing permits last year. The Riverpointe multi-use development project near the Family Arena will also likely attract young professionals, as well as plans to redevelop the city’s Frenchtown historic area.
Hopefully, the hospital will be able to grow with the community, he said. “We are hopeful that maybe they will be able to expand other services or make them better, at least.”
In the SSM press release, Jennings said: “Change is never easy. But by having the courage to do these things now, we can move our Mission forward and ensure SSM Health is here to serve our future community’s needs for years to come.”
St. Joseph traces its history to 1885, when the Sisters of St. Mary began operating the hospital out of a five-room home on Chauncey Street in St. Charles. In 1891, construction was completed at the hospital’s current location. The hospital has been expanded and renovated multiple times.
Updated Thursday with comments from the hospital president.
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