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Mayo Clinic considering expedited timeline for labor and delivery consolidation

Citing a staffing shortage, Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea and Austin may merge its labor and delivery departments ahead of initial timeline estimates.

Previous estimates for the childbirth services transition from the Albert Lea campus to the Austin one put the Albert Lea Baby Place closure in mid- to late 2020. While the date has not been decided, a transition could occur by as early as the end of this year, said Dr. Sumit Bhagra, medical director of Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea and Austin.

Bhagra said staffing shortage was always an issue with nursing that the facilities made do with, but a recent OB-GYN retirement, an upcoming retirement, a long-open obstetrics position and an unexpected departure in mid-October has put pressure on the situation.

“That’s really forcing our hand to keep both units to provide reliable services to the community,” Bhagra said. “… We find ourselves unable to keep both these units going with full capacity in the foreseeable future.”

The open OB spot has been that way for two years, Bhagra said. They have not been able to find the right candidate and have multiple openings coming up.

“We do not want to hire warm bodies,” he said.

He said he is not confident Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea and Austin will have a full labor and delivery staff in the near future.

Additionally, finding health care professionals to fill rural spots is difficult, Bhagra said. Birth rates in rural counties have dwindled for the past three years. Deliveries at the Albert Lea Baby Place average one child or less per day. This is a volume he said is not sustainable for new graduates, who are looking for between 600 and 700 deliveries a year to build skill and maintain a career.

“We run about half of that,” Bhagra said.

Bhagra said an earlier transition for labor and delivery services is not definitive at this time. Rather, it is one option that will solve the staffing problem. The clinic will be talking with stakeholders, both internal and external, to see if there is a different way to solve the problem. Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea and Austin will have more concrete information available about what that means in July, he said.

However, “as we look at the options, moving sooner seems likely,” Bhagra said.

Mayo Clinic has already utilized contract physicians or asked Mayo Clinic employees from other facilities to help out, Bhagra said. However, he said these methods provide patchy coverage for a short period of time.

“What it does to patients to see a new face every time they come in — we are very cognizant of that,” Bhagra said.

Save Our Healthcare chairman Brad Arends said the announcement was not a surprise. He called the labor and delivery move from Albert Lea to Austin a hot-button issue for the community.

“The community will be devastated by it,” Arends said of the possible new timeline.

He said Save Our Healthcare, an initiative started originally as Save Our Hospital following the initial announcement that Mayo Clinic would transition some services to Austin, continues in discussions with an alternative medical provider.

Freeborn County Administrator Tom Jensen said in an emailed statement that the board of commissioners is disappointed by the announcement.

“The disappointment is greatly intensified bearing in mind the coincidence … (with the May 21) resolution made by the Board of Commissioners to restore these very services as well as seeking the assistance of Governor Walz and Attorney General Ellison to secure and maintain vital health services for Freeborn County.”

Interim Albert Lea City Manager Jerry Gabrielatos did not respond to calls for comment.

The potentially expedited transition could occur while work is underway to renovate and add on to the labor and delivery space at Mayo Clinic in Austin. Construction at the Austin campus is on time for completion in mid- to late 2020, and Dr. Heidi Gaston, Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea and Austin lead of obstetrics and gynecology, said work with the facilities committee is being done to ensure enough rooms would be available as construction continues.

The phasing of the construction project allows them to have room availability to care for patients from both Albert Lea and Austin, she said, and contingency plans are in place that include utilizing other areas of the hospital or leaning on relationships with associated Mayo Clinic facilities nearby.

The new facility at Austin is planned to include a larger C-section room, 10 equal-size rooms that would not require mothers and families to move rooms during their stay based on delivery type, a well-baby nursery and the addition of a family waiting area.

There will also be additional services for mothers which are not currently offered at either site.

Gaston said most of the care currently offered to patients in this area will still be available at both sites, including contraception, pregnancy visits, labs, pediatric care and health maintenance exams like pap smears, mammograms and breast exams.

Patients with elective deliveries are expected to drive to their place of delivery, Bhagra said, but if a mother shows up at the Albert Lea Emergency Department in labor, transportation from Albert Lea to Austin will be at no cost to the family.

According to Bhagra, there will be an opportunity for community members, staff members and public officials to work with Mayo Clinic to find realistic and feasible solutions for patients, staff and the community.

“Our goal is to provide the best patient care that we can provide, and we looked at, from a staffing perspective, how we can do that,” Gaston said. “And in order to really meet our patients’ needs and provide that highest quality care, this is how we believe we’ll be able to meet that demand.”

 

About Sarah Kocher

Sarah covers education and arts and culture for the Tribune.

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