More hospital closings in rural America add risk for pregnant women
ALABAMA (Reuters) – Dr. Nicole Arthur, a family practice physician, was trained to avoid Cesarean deliveries in child-birth, unless medically necessary, because surgery increases risks and recovery time.
But she has adjusted her approach since arriving last year at the 70-bed North Baldwin Infirmary in rural, southern Alabama.
Low patient admissions and high costs mean the hospital does not have doctors on site around-the-clock to administer anesthesia in the case of an unexpected emergency Cesarean.
As a result, Dr. Arthur performs the surgery if there are any signs of complication, rather than waiting and running the risk that comes with the 20 to 30 minutes it takes for an anesthesiologist to arrive in the middle of the night.
“It’s better for me to do a C-section when I suspect that something may happen,” she said of her new strategy. “Getting the baby out healthy and happy outweighs some of the risk.”
Physicians in rural communities across America are facing the same tough choices as Dr. Arthur. Hospitals are scaling back services, shutting their maternity wards or closing altogether, according to data from hospitals, state health departments, the federal government and rural health organizations.
Nationally, 119 rural hospitals that have shut since 2005, with 80 of those closures having occurred since 2010, according to the most recent data from the North Carolina Rural Health Research Program.
To save on insurance and staffing costs, maternity departments are often among the first to get shuttered inside financially stressed rural hospitals, according medical professionals and healthcare experts.
“It’s been a slow and steady decline,” said Michael Topchik, the National Leader for the Chartis Center for Rural Health, about maternity ward closings. “It’s very expensive care to offer, especially when it’s lower volume.”
More than 200 maternity wards closed between 2004 and 2014 because of higher costs, fewer births and staffing shortages, leaving 54 percent of rural counties across the United States without hospital-based obstetrics, data from the University of Minnesota’s Rural Health Research Center show.
The trend has escalated recently even though the national healthcare law, known as Obamacare, was designed in part to help rural hospitals thrive. But unpaid patient debt has risen among rural hospitals by 50 percent since the Affordable Care Act was passed, according to the National Rural Health Association, especially in states that decided not to expand Medicaid – the state and federal insurance program for the poor.
The outlook for these hospitals was not poised to improve had Congress approved legislation to replace Obamacare. Senate Republicans’ proposed cuts to Medicaid would have pushed about 150 more rural hospitals into the red, according to the Chartis Center for Rural Health, mainly in states that voted Republican in the last election.
But late on Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Republican effort to repeal and immediately replace Obamacare will not be successful, after two of McConnell’s Senate conservatives announced that they would not support the bill.
The consequences go beyond politics.
When local doctors and midwives leave town, rural women lose access to essential services. Many skip or delay prenatal care that could prevent complications, premature birth or even death. The U.S. infant mortality rate is among the highest in developing countries at 5.8 deaths per 1,000 births.