Greed kills babies. Children’s lives matter. Children over profit.
These were the slogans proclaimed by signs carried by protesters outside of MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center in Baltimore in early May of 2018 to protest the closure of the dedicated pediatric emergency department and inpatient pediatric unit.
But administrators at Franklin Square Medical Center had made their decision long before the glue had dried on the signs, and the protests of patients and community officials fell on deaf ears. Eight doctors and 30 other staff had already lost their jobs, including the chair of pediatrics, Scott Krugman, MD.1
And this was just another drop in a slow ooze of pediatric inpatient units based in community hospitals that have seen the ax fall on what was thought to be a vital medical resource for their communities – yet not vital enough to survive its lack of profitability. From Taunton, Mass., to Chicago, Ill., to rural Tennessee, pediatric inpatient units in community hospitals have failed to even flirt with breaking even, let alone show profitability. Many community pediatric inpatient units are saddled with rock-bottom reimbursements offered by state Medicaid programs, the overwhelmingly prevalent payer for pediatric hospitalizations, which is compounded by the seasonality and unpredictability of pediatric inpatient volumes, so many have seen a glowing red bottom line lead to their demise.
What does this mean for pediatric health in underserved and rural communities? The closure of the pediatric inpatient unit at MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center meant the loss of physicians and nurses staffing the child protection team helping to assist the local district attorney in child abuse cases. Sometimes described as “secondary care,” community pediatric hospitalists also serve as a link between primary care providers and tertiary care subspecialists; they can serve as pediatric generalists throughout a hospital and provide newborn nursery care, delivery room resuscitations, ED consultations, procedural sedations, psychiatric unit support, surgical comanagement, and informal or formal outpatient consultations.2 Losing even a small inpatient pediatric unit can have a ripple effect on inpatient and outpatient pediatric services in a health system and community.
For patients and their caregivers, the loss of pediatric inpatient services in their community hospital can erect additional hurdles to appropriate health care. The need to travel longer distances to urban centers or even the other side of town can be challenging given the difficulties posed by long distances, traffic congestion, public transportation, or just parking.3 For patients suffering from longer hospitalizations caused by medical complexity or chronic illnesses, traveling long distances can exacerbate the caregiver stress from attempting to care for a family at home while participating in the care of a hospitalized child. Longer travel times can also worsen family stress by increasing a caregiver’s absence from home and increased nonmedical expenses, not to mention loss of wages.4 Comfort levels with inpatient providers can also suffer because most pediatric units in community hospitals are staffed by either community general pediatricians or very small pediatric hospitalist groups, which breeds familiarity with frequently admitted patients and their caregivers. This familiarity can be lacking in large academic centers, with confusing and ever-rotating teams of academic hospitalists, residents, and medical students.5