Community pediatric care is diminishing


The mantra of community hospital administrators is that pediatric care does not pay. Neonatal intensive care pays. For pediatrics, it is similar to how football programs (Medicare patients) support minor sports (pediatrics and obstetrics) at colleges. However, fewer even mildly sick newborns are cared for at community hospitals, which has led to a centralization of neonatal and pediatric care and a loss of pediatric expertise at the affected hospitals.

An empty hospital bed JohnnyGreig/E+/Getty Images

Pediatric hospitalists are hired to cover the pediatric floor, the emergency department, and labor and delivery, then fired over empty pediatric beds. The rationale expressed is that pediatricians have done such a good job in preventive care that children rarely need hospitalization, so why have a pediatric inpatient unit? It is true that preventive care has been an integral part of primary care for children. Significantly less that 1% of child office visits result in hospitalization.

Advocate Health Care has closed inpatient pediatric units at Illinois Masonic, on Chicago’s North Side, Good Samaritan in Downers Grove, and Good Shepherd in Barrington. Units also have been closed at Mount Sinai in North Lawndale, Norwegian American on Chicago’s West Side, Little Company of Mary in Evergreen Park, and Alexian Brothers in Elk Grove.

Dr. Todd J. Ochs is in private practice at Ravenswood Pediatrics in Chicago

Dr. Todd J. Ochs

As a Chicago-area pediatrician for more than 30 years, I have learned several things about community-based pediatric care:

1. Pediatrics is a geographic specialty. Parents will travel to shop, but would rather walk or have a short ride to their children’s medical providers. Secondary care should be community based, and hospitalization, if necessary, should be close by as well.

2. Hospitals that ceased delivering pediatric inpatient care lost their child-friendliness and pediatric competence, becoming uncomfortable delivering almost any care for children (e.g., sedated MRIs and EEGs, x-rays and ultrasounds, ECGs and echocardiograms, and emergency care).

3. In almost all hospitals, after pediatrics was gone eventually so passed obstetrics (another less remunerative specialty). Sick newborns need immediate, competent care. Most pediatric hospitalizations are short term, often overnight. Delaying newborn care is a medicolegal nightmare. Transferring a sick child to a distant hospital, to stay a day or 2, is counterintuitive, and exposes the child and his or her family to a potentially dangerous drive or helicopter ride.

4. As pediatric subspecialty care becomes more centralized, parents are asked to travel for hours to see a pediatric specialist. There are times when that is necessary (e.g., cardiovascular surgery). Pediatric subspecialists, such as pediatric otolaryngologists, then leave community hospitals, forcing even minor surgeries (e.g., ear ventilation tubes) to be done at a center. In rural areas, this could mean hours of travel, lost work days, and family disruption.

5. Children’s hospitals get uninsured and publicly insured children sent hundreds of miles, because there were no subspecialists in the community who would care for these children.

What is the solution, in our profit-focused health care system?

1. Hospitals’ Certificates of Need could include a mandate for pediatric care.

2. Children’s hospitals could be made responsible for community-based care within their geographic catchment areas.

3. The state or the federal government could mandate and financially support community-based hospital care.

4. Deciding what level of care might be appropriate for each community could depend upon closeness to a pediatric hospital, health problems in the community, and the availability of pediatric specialists.

5. A condition for medical licensure might be that a community-based pediatric subspecialist is required to care for a proportion of the uninsured or publicly insured children in his or her area.

6. Reimbursements for pediatric care need to rise enough to make caring for children worth it.

The major decision point regarding care for children cannot be financial, but must instead embrace the needs of each affected community. If quality health care is a right, and not a privilege, then it is time to stop closing pediatric inpatient units, and, instead, look for creative ways to better care for our children.

This process has led to pediatric care being available only in designated centers. The centralization of pediatric care has progressed from 30 years ago, when most community hospitals had inpatient pediatric units, to the search for innovative ways to fill pediatric beds in the mid-90s (sick day care, flex- or shared pediatric units), to the wholesale closure of community pediatric inpatient beds, from 2000 to the present. I have, unfortunately, seen this firsthand, watching the rise of pediatric mega-hospitals and the demise of community pediatrics. It is a simple financial argument. Care for children simply does not pay nearly as well as does care for adults, especially Medicaid patients. Pediatricians are the poorest paid practicing doctors (public health doctors are paid less).

It is true that pediatricians always have been at the forefront of preventive medicine, and that pediatric patients almost always get better, in spite of our best-intentioned interventions. So community-based pediatricians admit very few patients.

With the loss of pediatric units, community hospitals lose their comfort caring for children. This includes phlebotomy, x-ray, trauma, surgery, and behavioral health. And eroding community hospital pediatric expertise has catastrophic implications for rural hospitals, where parents may have to drive for hours to find a child-friendly emergency department.

Is there an answer?

1. Hospitals are responsible for the patients they serve, including children. Why should a hospital be able to close pediatric services so easily?

2. Every hospital that sees children, through the emergency department, needs to have a pediatrician available to evaluate a child, 24/7.

3. There needs to be an observation unit for children, with pediatric staffing, for overnight stays.

4. Pediatric hospitalists should be staffing community hospitals.

5. Pediatric behavioral health resources need to be available, e.g., inpatient psychiatry, partial hospitalization programs, intensive outpatient programs.

6. Telehealth communication is not adequate to address acute care problems, because the hospital caring for the child has to have the proper equipment and adequate expertise to carry out the recommendations of the teleconsultant.

If we accept that our children will shape the future, we must allow them to survive and thrive. Is health care a right or a privilege, and is it just for adults or for children, too?

Dr. Ochs is in private practice at Ravenswood Pediatrics in Chicago. He said he had no relevant financial disclosures. Email him at [email protected].

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