LOWVILLE — Optimism about the return of maternity services at the Lewis County Health System’s hospital by spring has been paused after a potential new doctor backed away from the recruitment process.
“We had targeted April for opening up the service again,” CEO Gerald R. Cayer told the health system board during its last meeting of the year on Wednesday evening, “I was very optimistic about that time frame but unfortunately, two weeks ago the (doctor) candidate we were interested in chose not to join us.”
The potential April opening had been alluded to in multiple meetings including those for the health system and county boards and the county Health and Human Services Committee over the past two months, but no details were offered about why that would be possible.
Mr. Cayer announced the administration’s decision to “pause” maternity services as of Sept. 25, 2021, during a Sept. 11 press conference.
The pause was necessary due to the simultaneous resignation of six maternity team members in response to the state’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate, including one physician.
Two additional resignations shortly after the announcement left two doctors and four nurses in the department — not enough to provide the same level of care and not enough time to find new people.
In an interview on Thursday, Mr. Cayer said he was very grateful that the state Department of Health saw the value in pausing the service rather than ending it completely which would have made starting up again very time-consuming.
He also understands the perspectives of those who resigned, many of whom were women concerned about the impact the vaccine might have on their ability to give birth.
“There was incomplete, inaccurate and confusing information during that time, so it was an incredibly difficult and unsettling period. Experts couldn’t agree, there were many mixed messages … a part of me understands why they took the action they did. I don’t agree with it, but I understand where they were coming from.”
Mr. Cayer said the health system’s team has been working nonstop since then to recruit new doctors and nurses.
They have been successful in hiring some of the needed nurses, although there are still more needed, and some nurses have committed to joining the maternity team once the other positions are full, he said.
Although Mr. Cayer said only one new doctor is needed to join the two who stayed to “unpause” maternity services, “we know we can expect some retirements at some point so we are really trying to aggressively recruit at least two … For our model we would want three physicians.”
For now, the nurses and doctors awaiting the maternity service’s return are working in the women’s health clinic providing a “wide spectrum” of services including pre- and post-birth care. When it is time to give birth, however, patients go to either Carthage Area Hospital or Samaritan Medical Center in Watertown through transfer agreements with Lewis County Health.
One thing Mr. Cayer has the sense the health system does not have to worry about is the desire of women in the county to be able to have their babies delivered in “their” hospital.
“The women of Lewis County have always been very loyal to the service … and if we find a strong provider and introduce him or her to the community, it will be rebuilt,” he said. “If I didn’t (feel that way) it wouldn’t make sense to work so hard to make it happen.”
Skilled staff recruitment is a challenge across not just health care but most industries, and was already a challenge in most rural areas pre-pandemic for health care.
Mr. Cayer said the competition for experienced OBGYN doctors, because “there are just not a lot of them,” has become even more intense, with small rural facilities at a distinct disadvantage in many areas creating “maternity deserts” where “people travel hundreds of miles to gain access to an OBGYN.”
The key, he said, is to find people who love what the north country has to offer — four seasons, good schools, strong ties to patients and community members, engagement with nature and a slower pace, because competing with much larger urban health centers on salaries and incentives is a challenge for places like Lewis County Health.
“We just have to work hard to find those who want out of life what we have — that is the secret sauce,” Mr. Cayer said. “It’s more about finding those individuals than just recruiting to get someone to sign a contract.”
So the search continues, and so does the pause.