Erlanger Western Carolina Hospital in Murphy will close its labor and delivery unit next month. BPR spoke with hospital CEO Mark Kimball about how the decision was reached:
Erlanger, a nonprofit-Chattanooga based health system purchased Murphy Medical Center in 2018. When the hospital was purchased it was in trouble says CEO Mark Kimball. He adds decisions like closing the labor and delivery will hopefully keep the hospital profitable.
“We looked at a number of factors in our service area, in Murphy, deliveries have been declining for a number of years,” says Kimball. Erlanger is now the only non-profit hospital west of Asheville.
Kimball says that in the last five years the hospital has averaged 120 births as Cherokee County had about 300 births total per year. The other mothers headed to Blairsville, Georgia or Harris Regional Hospital in Sylva to deliver. Blairsville is about 20 miles away while Sylva is about 65 miles to the east.
“So you have to ask yourself, you know, how could you possibly build this business? Can we capture more of the business?,” asks Kimball.
This small number of mothers choosing Erlanger is one of the reasons its closing the labor and delivery unit.
“Something else I'd like to point out, Lilly, for Cherokee County, our average age is 51 years old. And for the state of North Carolina, it's 38 years old,” says Kimball.
Kimball says there are more aging people who are in need of care in Western North Carolina, but the numbers of primary care doctors - especially those who are accepting new patients - is dangerously low.
“As you know, in this area there is a lack of primary care physicians and that's what we really went after hard, to be able to build that primary care base,” says Kimball. “Everyone needs a primary care physician.”
While Erlanger is getting rid of its women’s health department, they have brought on seven new primary physicians since it took over the hospital.
“So a lot of those needs, a lot of those services, et cetera for women's health can certainly be taken care of here locally,” says Kimball, who has spoken out in favor of Medicaid expansion.
The OB/GYN practice at the hospital will close at the end of December. Kimball says they have had 1,200 patients at the practice in the last 18 months. The three OB/GYN providers are part of the 10 full-time employees who are losing their positions. Kimball says they have been able to reassign most of them to other roles at Erlanger.
Women will still be able to get check-ups with hospital physicians and the emergency room will still deliver babies when there isn’t another option.