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No easy answers at Sharon Hospital

There was a strong and swift reaction to the leak of Health Quest and Sharon Hospital’s plan to close the birthing suites in Sharon (see story in this issue by Cynthia Hochswender.) The leak happened the weekend of June 30 - July 1; hospital officials wanted to embargo the information until July 3, when they had planned to make the announcement public. It became clear they had told  too many people of their plans prior to the official release when it was posted on Facebook on July 1.

Not only the early release, but also the intense emotional reaction from the public, must have come as somewhat of a surprise to administrators at Health Quest and Sharon Hospital. After all, part of the reasoning and justification behind the plan was the aging population in the area served by Sharon Hospital. Why would those who are unlikely or unable to become parents object so strenuously to losing the facility at which to do so? 

But while the younger population is shrinking in the Sharon Hospital coverage area, those who do remain here would clearly like to have the opportunity to start their families at a local facility, one where they may themselves have come into the world. If the suites are closed, a long history of natal service to the community will be lost with little or no possibility of ever being reinstated. The upsurge of protest over the planned closure, including from state Rep. Brian Ohler (R-64) and the Democrat running for that seat, Maria Horn, demanded the attention of those in charge at Sharon Hospital and Health Quest. 

Part of the opposition to the announced closure was surely rooted in the fact that the action could mean the region has pretty much given up on supporting young families. Such a perception would be only one part of that reality, as Region One towns struggle to have enough affordable housing and economic development to attract and keep younger people in the area. The issues are all interconnected, and trying to keep the birthing suites functioning  is just one step toward having a whole, cohesive social fabric in our region. 

Where will it end up? Already the census at the Region One public schools has diminished over the past several years, to dramatic effect in some towns. Older alumni of Housatonic Valley Regional High School quote the larger numbers of their graduating classes as compared with the 88 who graduated this year. 

And the loss of population, which will happen at an increasingly rapid rate as the older folks who remain here leave this Earth, does bring into question the quality of services available here across the board. One of the reasons given by hospital administrators for the proposed closure of the birthing suites (while maintaining pre- and post-natal care, by the way) was that seeing too few births (251 total last year, but fewer projected for each year moving forward) restricts the experience and abilities of the OB/GYN physicians associated with Sharon Hospital. So, any potentially challenging births would need to be redirected to other, larger, maternity units outside the area.

If many of the more costly services in the area, in many different fields, need to be jobbed out to firms with better-honed skills from greater experience, those who remain here in any expertise will not be able to live on what they can earn. This is especially true as costs rise here for all necessities of life. 

Can Sharon Hospital find a better answer than closure of the birthing suites if the Sharon OB/GYN group decides to add their physicians to the 24/7 coverage necessary to have a viable maternity unit? If so, let’s hope it’s a long-term solution that can work for all concerned. Because otherwise, it won’t be too long in the future before we’re right back here again, looking for answers that will have critical importance to not only the medical care, but the lives, of all in the region.