BELLE GLADE — Lakeside Medical Center, the only public hospital in Palm Beach County, is closing its birthing unit citing a drop in births in recent years. The closure leaves pregnant women in communities in the far west of the county nearly 30 miles from the nearest full-service maternity hospitals.
The hospital will keep its maternity ward open with doctors offering prenatal and midwifery coverage and will have an obstetrician-gynecologist on call for emergency deliveries, according to hospital officials.
The decision is expected to move births to other hospitals such as Palms West Hospital and Wellington Regional Medical Center in western Palm Beach County.
“If in maternity, the volume and the patients do not come to us, what can we do? said Dr. Jennifer Dorcé-Medard, Lakeside’s deputy chief medical officer. “Providing prenatal care is an area where we can definitely help serve patients, so that we can work alongside other higher level care facilities to deliver healthy babies.”
The delivery unit will remain open until an official closing date is announced.
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Births at Lakeside Medical Center drop to 111 in 2021 from 350 in 2018
Lakeside Medical Center, on Hooker Highway between Belle Glade and Pahokee, opened in 2009 and delivered its first baby that year. The hospital serves rural communities near Lake Okeechobee, home to approximately 40,000 people, most of whom have middle to low incomes.
Dorcé-Medard says deliveries to Lakeside have declined over the past seven years. In 2018, the unit delivered 350 babies. Last year it delivered 111 babies and 120 babies are expected to be born there in 2022.
“In January 2022, we had eight deliveries, so that’s quite a few,” Dorcé-Medard said.
As the number of births decreases, the unit loses competence, explains Dorcé-Medard.
“For someone who’s not in the medical field, they may think that a lower number may mean you’re paying more attention to that baby,” she said. “But you want to make sure you’re sharp and following your skill set.”
She attributes the decline to mothers already choosing to have their babies in eastern hospitals, including Palms West Hospital and Wellington Regional Medical Center, which offer higher levels of care.
Steve B. Wilson, Mayor of Belle Glade, doubts the closure will affect the community.
“Most of these deliveries are on the east coast anyway,” said Wilson, who defines the coast as being east of Twenty-Mile Bend. “We both want people to be in The Glades, but we respect the public’s will.”
The Lakeside work unit has six delivery rooms and 10 postpartum rooms and employs 12 people. Dorcé-Medard said all employees will be transferred to other units in the hospital and given the training they need to do these jobs.
“It will be their choice if there is an area of the hospital that interests them,” Dorcé-Medard said. “Our goal is to keep our staff.”
Going forward, the hospital’s maternity ward will focus on prenatal services offering 24/7 midwifery coverage. She will hire an obstetrician-gynecologist on the unit and will have one another on call for emergency deliveries.
“The goal of this district is to fill the void and meet the needs of the community,” Dorcé-Medard said, adding that the department has seen an increase in the number of patients missing prenatal care.
“If we can offer them antenatal care services…it will complement the services of other facilities and ensure a safe birth wherever they choose to give birth,” she said.
Hospitals near Wellington, Royal Palm Beach prepare for more births
Lakeside will take most pregnant women to their preferred hospital for delivery, using one of two ambulances the county health care district has purchased for emergency and non-emergency transfers.
Like any other ambulance transfer, the cost will be billed to the patient’s insurance. If an expectant mother is uninsured, the district will work with her to see if she is eligible for financial assistance, Dorcé-Medard said.
Palms West Hospital in Royal Palm Beach is expected to become the birthing center of choice for many of these mothers, and James Kimbrell, its chief executive, said this week that the hospital is ready to absorb the influx.
“It’s not going to overwhelm our system,” Kimbrell said. “It just adds more value to our investment in our motherhood.”
Over the past three years, the hospital’s maternity ward has seen an increase in the number of mothers giving birth, Kimbrell said. Last year he gave birth to 2,150 babies, an average of nearly six a day. He said he’s added four postpartum beds, for a total of 16, and hired a maternal fetal medicine doctor who will work closely with Lakeside doctors.
For Wilson, her biggest concern is that mothers in Western communities receive the best medical care during labor, wherever they go in the county.
“We’re going to make sure these young women still have the support and care they need to make the deliveries,” Wilson said. “It’s a shame it’s not in Lakeside.”
Valentina Palm is a reporter covering West Palm Beach County at the Palm Beach Post. You can reach her at [email protected] Help support our work: sign up today!