Tempe St. Luke's Hospital is closing its maternity unit Aug. 27, leaving the city without a place for mothers to deliver their babies.
This is the second time the hospital has stopped obstetrics services. In September 2000, Tennessee-based IASIS Healthcare Corp., which leased and later purchased Tempe St. Luke's, announced the hospital's labor and delivery unit would close for financial reasons. Competition from local hospitals had eroded patient volume and hurt the facility's earnings.
Nearly four years later, after spending about $3 million to renovate and reopen an 11-bed obstetrics unit last year, Tempe St. Luke's is again blaming poor patient volume and financial performance in its decision to stop delivering babies.
"They were not able to attract enough physicians to make it viable," said Jeff Egbert, the new CEO of Tempe St. Luke's. "Patients go where the physicians take them."
Obstetrician-gynecologists typically choose one or two hospitals to deliver their patients' babies. In the East Valley, Egbert said many of those physicians are going to larger hospitals in high-growth areas, including Chandler Regional and Banner Desert Medical Center in Mesa, where more than 7,000 babies are born each year.
Mercy Gilbert Medical Center, scheduled to open in March 2006, will include two cesarean section rooms, six labor and delivery rooms and 16 postpartum beds on its third floor.
"Look at the location. Where is the growth of new families happening?" said Egbert. "I don't think it's in Tempe. Where you're seeing growth of new families is in the south and far East (Valley)."
Physician recruiting efforts have not been successful enough, he said. Although a doctor from outside the Phoenix market was due to come on board this fall, one more physician would not bring enough patients and provide the on-call coverage Tempe St. Luke's needed, he said. An obstetrics unit of Tempe's size would require at least four doctors. Tempe St. Luke's had one full-time OB-GYN and three nurse-midwives on staff, treating about 35 to 40 patients a month.
The About Women Nurse-Midwifery program at Tempe St. Luke's has been unique in the East Valley as a hospital-based program. The nurse-midwives have been hospital employees offering patients prenatal care from an office on campus. When their patients were in labor, the nurse-midwives delivered the babies in new birthing suites, six of which have Jacuzzis.
About five to 10 people will have their positions eliminated when the obstetrics unit closes, said Egbert. Those staff members will be offered severance packages or have the opportunity to move to open positions at IASIS hospitals in the Valley. IASIS also owns Mesa General Hospital and St. Luke's Medical Center in Phoenix.
Kelley Kountz-Jenkins of Gilbert will be one of the last mothers to deliver at Tempe St. Luke's. With her baby girl due Aug. 4, Jenkins chose Tempe St. Luke's because of the nurse-midwifery program. Jenkins' nine-year-old son and 22-year-old sister were delivered by the same nurse-midwife group when it practiced out of Phoenix Memorial Hospital.
"That's really disappointing," Jenkins said of the closure. "I'm glad I'm due any day now. I wouldn't know where to go."
Tempe St. Luke's will continue providing maternity services until Aug. 26. Patients needing maternity services after that date should consult their medical provider or health plan to arrange services, hospital officials said.
A hospital's decision to eliminate obstetrics is tough because maternity services help make a full-service hospital, said Adda Alexander, executive vice president of the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association.
"I know this must be a very painful decision for them," she said. "We're fortunate here that we have so many hospitals that continue to offer obstetrical services."