Business & Tech

Labor, delivery unit at Taunton hospital closes

Steward Health Care System has abruptly shuttered the labor and delivery unit at its community hospital in Taunton after failing to find enough doctors to take care of newborns — a move that will disrupt hundreds of patients.

Steward has a contract with Massachusetts General Hospital that allows Mass. General physicians to care for newborns at Morton Hospital in Taunton and other Steward hospitals.

But Steward officials said Tuesday that Mass. General and its parent company, Partners HealthCare, are no longer sending enough physicians to tend to Morton’s tiniest patients.

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Steward officials maintained that it’s unsafe for them to keep delivering babies at Morton without enough newborn specialists in the building, and they told the state Department of Public Health this week that they are officially closing the hospital’s labor and delivery services.

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“It has become evident that Partners could not staff our unit,” said Dr. Joseph M. Weinstein, chief medical officer at Steward, a Boston-based for-profit company that operates nine Massachusetts hospitals.

“We have worked tirelessly to try to staff it. . . . Partners left us with no options other than to close the unit,” Weinstein said.

But officials at the Department of Public Health said Tuesday that Steward closed the unit too soon, before completing the proper regulatory process, and will be subject to fines if services don’t resume by Nov. 27.

“As always, the health and safety of patients is our primary concern, and . . . we will review the proposed closure to ensure that measures are put in place to minimize the impact on the community and maintain the highest levels of quality, safety, and patient care,” department spokesman Tom Lyons said in an e-mail.

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Steward officials are instructing pregnant patients who were planning to deliver at Morton to go instead to Steward’s Good Samaritan Medical Center in Brockton, almost 20 miles away. (Morton will still deliver infants in case of emergency.)

Dr. Ronald E. Kleinman, physician-in-chief of MassGeneral Hospital for Children, said in a statement Tuesday that Mass. General “can no longer guarantee consistent, round-the-clock neonatal hospitalist services” because the number of patients at Morton is too small for doctors to maintain the highest safety and quality standards.

“After an extensive review of the program, MassGeneral Hospital for Children has determined that the extremely low volume of deliveries in Morton Hospital’s obstetrics program . . . is a significant impediment to maintaining core maternal and neonatal clinical competencies needed to safeguard mothers and infants,” Kleinman said.

Morton Hospital delivers about 325 babies a year, according to Steward officials, while Good Samaritan in Brockton delivers about 1,000 a year.

Weinstein said Steward reached out to several other physician groups hoping to find newborn specialists — doctors who know, for example, how to insert tubes into premature babies. But no other pediatricians stepped up, he said.

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Steward initially planned to close Morton’s labor and delivery services for two weeks in November because of the physician shortage. The company later moved to close the unit permanently.

‘Partners left us with no options other than to close the unit.’

Steward didn’t say whether jobs at Morton would be cut because of the closure.

The company has grown since acquiring the former Caritas Christi hospitals in 2010, but it has also scaled back in some cases, abruptly closing Quincy Medical Center in 2014.

Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey
@globe.com
. Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.