Sharon Hospital to shutter its labor and delivery unit

SHARON — Sharon Hospital and Nuvance Health announced during an online Community Forum on Wednesday, Sept. 29, that the hospital will be closing its labor and delivery unit, pending regulatory approval, within eight to 12 months. 

Low birth volume, the high cost of maintaining a fully staffed and under-utilized obstetrics unit, and the need to chart a sustainable path forward for Sharon Hospital necessitated the decision, said hospital and Nuvance officials during the two-hour Zoom and Facebook live forum, which drew 130 attendees.

Several other changes were announced as well, including the beginning of plans to reduce hours for surgery at the hospital; and changes to critical care.

Dr. Mark Hirko, president of Sharon Hospital, said the situation in Sharon is reflected nationwide as rural communities are losing access to hospital maternity care at an alarming rate. “Rural hospitals are in danger in the U.S.,” he said, citing the “sobering” statistics surrounding 180 closures since 2005, with 138 closures in the last decade and 40% more at risk of closing.

“Unfortunately, Sharon Hospital is not immune” to the challenging health-care landscape, said Hirko. He noted that Sharon Hospital was identified by the Center for Health Care Quality and Payment Reform as being at a “high risk for closing.”

 Throughout the past three-year period, Hirko explained, the hospital has lost $39.8 million, with an additional anticipated loss of $21 million this year. “So we have to act if we are going to move forward here. We can’t continue serving the needs of our community unless we adapt.”

Sharon Hospital has seen an average of fewer than 200 annual deliveries over the past four years, and birth rates are decreasing. An estimated 40% of pregnant women in the area choose to deliver at other hospitals in Connecticut, according to Kerry Eaton, Chief Operating Officer for Nuvance Health.

In order to sustain the hospital’s maternity program, said Eaton in response to a question posed to the panel about the recent influx of new residents to the area due to the pandemic, the number of deliveries would need to more than double its current rate. The influx of new residents, she said, is too small to make a difference.

Nuvance had already announced in 2018 that it planned to close the obstetrics department at the hospital (at that point, the company was still called Health Quest). There was strong grassroots opposition at the time and the company changed course.

Nurses encouraged
to remain

Christina McCulloch, Chief Nursing Officer for Sharon Hospital, said labor and delivery staff have been informed of the “difficult decision” to close their unit. She noted that the nurses will be encouraged to remain on board until obstetrics is phased out, at which time assistance will be offered to help them find permanent positions.

McCulloch noted that the hospital does have “contingency plans in place,” but noted that “if we do have a mass exodus, then we will be in a difficult situation.”

Officials said plans are underway to incentivize nurses to remain at Sharon Hospital to care for pregnant women throughout their deliveries and to help connect future mothers with labor and delivery services at other Nuvance Health hospitals in the region. 

“We would not have gone down this path if we didn’t think there are safe and viable alternatives,” said Eaton.

A response to
shifting demographics

Hirko noted that the Sharon Hospital of today is “much different” than when it was built decades ago. “It’s difficult to recruit primary care physicians to this area. We also follow the demographics of a growing 65-plus population that is something that is quite sobering, and with that a need to adjust our specialties and subspecialties.”

The hospital’s long-range plan will focus on what hospital officials referred to as the community’s greatest needs. These include expanding primary and ambulatory care, investing in behavioral health, consolidating inpatient care services to capture efficiencies in staffing and care, and consolidating surgical services to be more efficient.

Sharon Hospital’s Board played a critical role in the evaluative process and has endorsed the transformative plan, the Nuvance officials said.

No changes to
emergency department

In response to a question from the community, Hirko noted that Sharon Hospital’s Emergency Department will continue with “business as usual. We will not be changing anything. We will continue to care for patients as we care for them today.”

If anything, care in the ER will be enhanced, said Hirko, to include enhanced obstetrics training protocols of staff “to ensure their skills are up to date.”

One participant’s question focused on morbidity risks or quality of care risks resulting from shuttered Labor and delivery units. In response, Hirko referred to a hospital in eastern New York that halted its obstetrics services and “has yet to have any overt emergencies” as a result.

According to Dr. John Murphy, president and CEO of Nuvance Health, the community conversation will continue in the weeks and months ahead.  “We look forward to continued collaboration with our staff and the Sharon community as we work to improve the health of every person we serve.”

He noted that the goal is for Sharon Hospital to be able to “support itself for the foreseeable future. We are not looking to generate profit from Sharon Hospital. We want to ultimately establish a model that allows Sharon Hospital to break even so it can provide services to the community for many years to come.”

The recorded session from the Sept. 29 presentation to the community, and a copy of the digital presentation, can be found online at www.nuvancehealth.org/sharonhospitaltransformation. Community members are invited to submit follow-up questions and concerns by emailing sharonhospital@nuvancehealth.org or calling 845-554-1734 with their name and phone number.

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