St. Catherine of Siena Hospital in Smithtown.

St. Catherine of Siena Hospital in Smithtown. Credit: James Carbone

Catholic Health plans to compensate for the loss of maternal care services at its Smithtown hospital by adding an equal number of patient beds at its West Islip and Port Jefferson hospitals, the health system said in an application to state regulators.

The 24-bed maternity unit and seven-bed neonatal intensive care unit at St. Catherine of Siena Hospital in Smithtown ceased operating in early February. Catholic Health executives said they could not safely operate the units because they couldn't attract enough doctors to run them. Still, the Rockville Centre-based health network needs the state's signoff to officially shutter the maternity ward.

As part of the application process, Catholic Health submitted a “health equity impact assessment” conducted by Sachs Policy Group, a health advisory firm it hired. The document said losing the maternity ward was not expected to strain the larger, regional health system since  fewer than 3% of Suffolk County births occur at St. Catherine.

Stony Brook University Hospital, which is nine miles away and handles the biggest share of county births, says it has the capacity to absorb all of St. Catherine's patient load of roughly 500 births a year.

“We are absolutely ready, willing and able to take whatever patients need to come to Stony Brook … even if it was 100% of them,” said Dr. William Burke, interim chair of the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Medicine.

The shift isn't expected to imperil maternal care in the Smithtown area, and St. Catherine's relatively small role in delivering babies in the region may be a reflection, in part, of it not being as up-to-date on meeting women's standards and preferences, maternal health experts said.

Catholic Health plans to add 14 maternity beds and seven neonatal intensive care unit beds at Good Samaritan University Hospital in West Islip, 17 miles away, and another 10 maternity beds at St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson, about 13 miles away, according to the impact assessment. 

Last year, 45% of patients who delivered at St. Catherine lived in ZIP codes immediately surrounding the facility, but many resided closer to St. Charles and Good Samaritan, the assessment noted. Catholic Health argues it is advancing health equity by expanding maternity care at Good Samaritan and St. Charles, hospitals that see more medically “underserved patients,” such as racial and ethnic minorities, low-income people and those dealing with transportation barriers.

The situation presents concern for people living near St. Catherine who lack access to transportation, according to Martine Hackett, chair of the Department of Population Health at Hofstra University. Just over 4% of the population near St. Catherine doesn't have access to a private vehicle at home, according to the assessment. But Hackett said she doesn't believe the distance to a maternity ward has grown so much that it endangers women. 

“I don't think that necessarily puts people more at risk, by making something 15 miles away versus 10 miles away,” Hackett said.

The nurses' union has said it is concerned that traffic jams will prevent women from quickly reaching other hospitals. 

The maternity ward's closure may have a more dramatic impact on employment. The move will mean about 31 fewer full-time nurses are needed at St. Catherine, but Good Samaritan and St. Charles would need two to five more full-time nurses each, the document said. 

Catholic Health didn't mention expanding its physician staff at either hospital, which means reducing operating costs could have been a motivating factor, Hackett said.

The health system didn't directly respond when asked about adding OB-GYN specialists at Good Samaritan and St. Charles, but said its plans were not financially motivated.   

The public has become more aware of the high maternal mortality rates in the United States and other poor outcomes, and interest in seeking out different care models has grown, according to Hackett. Women check how frequently hospitals perform cesarean sections. Although surgically removing a baby through the abdomen can be crucial and unavoidable, the process, like all surgeries, comes with risks and a recovery period. St. Catherine has a Caesarean section rate of about 48%, but a hospital's rate should be under 24%, according to The Leapfrog Group, a nonprofit focused on health care transparency. 

There is also increased demand for midwives, nurse practitioners who take a more holistic approach, and doulas, who help women prepare for births and coach them through the process, according to Hackett and Laura Siddons, co-founder of The Nesting Place, which offers counseling and other services for expecting and veteran parents. Midwives didn't deliver babies in 2023 at St. Catherine, according to Leapfrog, and the health system hasn't been as open to doulas and some of the approaches they suggest, said Siddons, of Islip.

She said there's been a resurgence of interest in less medicated births and traditional delivery positions, such as standing near the bed, with a midwife prepared to catch the infant.

“Hopefully this can be an opportunity for [Catholic Health] to focus more of their efforts in other places,” Siddons said. “They could do better at offering more options for people looking for a different, alternative birth experience.”

Catholic Health said it is open to using midwives and does work with doulas. 

It's unclear how long the state process to close the units may take.  

“St. Catherine awaits the NYS Department of Health’s completion of its review and its recommendations on the proposal,” Catholic Health spokeswoman Lisa Greiner said in a statement.

Catholic Health plans to compensate for the loss of maternal care services at its Smithtown hospital by adding an equal number of patient beds at its West Islip and Port Jefferson hospitals, the health system said in an application to state regulators.

The 24-bed maternity unit and seven-bed neonatal intensive care unit at St. Catherine of Siena Hospital in Smithtown ceased operating in early February. Catholic Health executives said they could not safely operate the units because they couldn't attract enough doctors to run them. Still, the Rockville Centre-based health network needs the state's signoff to officially shutter the maternity ward.

As part of the application process, Catholic Health submitted a “health equity impact assessment” conducted by Sachs Policy Group, a health advisory firm it hired. The document said losing the maternity ward was not expected to strain the larger, regional health system since  fewer than 3% of Suffolk County births occur at St. Catherine.

Stony Brook University Hospital, which is nine miles away and handles the biggest share of county births, says it has the capacity to absorb all of St. Catherine's patient load of roughly 500 births a year.

WHAT TO KNOW:

  • The maternity ward at St. Catherine of Siena Hospital in Smithtown has been closed since February.
  • Catholic Health plans to transfer the maternity beds to its hospitals in West Islip and Port Jefferson.
  • An impact assessment commissioned by Catholic Health found the changes would not adversely impact health care in the region.

“We are absolutely ready, willing and able to take whatever patients need to come to Stony Brook … even if it was 100% of them,” said Dr. William Burke, interim chair of the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Medicine.

The shift isn't expected to imperil maternal care in the Smithtown area, and St. Catherine's relatively small role in delivering babies in the region may be a reflection, in part, of it not being as up-to-date on meeting women's standards and preferences, maternal health experts said.

Catholic Health plans to add 14 maternity beds and seven neonatal intensive care unit beds at Good Samaritan University Hospital in West Islip, 17 miles away, and another 10 maternity beds at St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson, about 13 miles away, according to the impact assessment. 

Last year, 45% of patients who delivered at St. Catherine lived in ZIP codes immediately surrounding the facility, but many resided closer to St. Charles and Good Samaritan, the assessment noted. Catholic Health argues it is advancing health equity by expanding maternity care at Good Samaritan and St. Charles, hospitals that see more medically “underserved patients,” such as racial and ethnic minorities, low-income people and those dealing with transportation barriers.

Transportation concerns

The situation presents concern for people living near St. Catherine who lack access to transportation, according to Martine Hackett, chair of the Department of Population Health at Hofstra University. Just over 4% of the population near St. Catherine doesn't have access to a private vehicle at home, according to the assessment. But Hackett said she doesn't believe the distance to a maternity ward has grown so much that it endangers women. 

“I don't think that necessarily puts people more at risk, by making something 15 miles away versus 10 miles away,” Hackett said.

The nurses' union has said it is concerned that traffic jams will prevent women from quickly reaching other hospitals. 

The maternity ward's closure may have a more dramatic impact on employment. The move will mean about 31 fewer full-time nurses are needed at St. Catherine, but Good Samaritan and St. Charles would need two to five more full-time nurses each, the document said. 

A renovated maternity room in the Maternal Child Pavilion at St. Charles...

A renovated maternity room in the Maternal Child Pavilion at St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson. Credit: Heather Walsh

Catholic Health didn't mention expanding its physician staff at either hospital, which means reducing operating costs could have been a motivating factor, Hackett said.

The health system didn't directly respond when asked about adding OB-GYN specialists at Good Samaritan and St. Charles, but said its plans were not financially motivated.   

The public has become more aware of the high maternal mortality rates in the United States and other poor outcomes, and interest in seeking out different care models has grown, according to Hackett. Women check how frequently hospitals perform cesarean sections. Although surgically removing a baby through the abdomen can be crucial and unavoidable, the process, like all surgeries, comes with risks and a recovery period. St. Catherine has a Caesarean section rate of about 48%, but a hospital's rate should be under 24%, according to The Leapfrog Group, a nonprofit focused on health care transparency. 

There is also increased demand for midwives, nurse practitioners who take a more holistic approach, and doulas, who help women prepare for births and coach them through the process, according to Hackett and Laura Siddons, co-founder of The Nesting Place, which offers counseling and other services for expecting and veteran parents. Midwives didn't deliver babies in 2023 at St. Catherine, according to Leapfrog, and the health system hasn't been as open to doulas and some of the approaches they suggest, said Siddons, of Islip.

She said there's been a resurgence of interest in less medicated births and traditional delivery positions, such as standing near the bed, with a midwife prepared to catch the infant.

“Hopefully this can be an opportunity for [Catholic Health] to focus more of their efforts in other places,” Siddons said. “They could do better at offering more options for people looking for a different, alternative birth experience.”

Catholic Health said it is open to using midwives and does work with doulas. 

It's unclear how long the state process to close the units may take.  

“St. Catherine awaits the NYS Department of Health’s completion of its review and its recommendations on the proposal,” Catholic Health spokeswoman Lisa Greiner said in a statement.

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