EAST POINT, Ga. (AP) — The closure of an emergency room, inpatient beds and operating room at a hospital south of Atlanta could cause critical delays in patient care and put stress on other hospitals in the area, medical experts tell the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Wellstar Atlanta Medical Center South in East Point is slated to shut down on May 6 and turn into a 24-hour outpatient clinic. It currently has the only emergency room in Fulton County south of Interstate 20.
The loss of the ER could delay care for strokes, heart attacks and other medical conditions that require especially prompt treatment, the AJC reported Friday.
“Distance matters. Place matters,” said Justin Moore, a Medical College of Georgia and Georgia Cancer Center epidemiologist who studies the connection between geography and health. He added, "So if you take a resource from a community that provides certain health services, I mean, that could lead to a ... loss in lives.”
Other hospitals could also face additional burdens at a time when they are dealing with a return of patients for services and treatment delayed by the pandemic, said Rebecca Cash, an assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at Harvard Medical School.
“If a hospital closes and then the surrounding hospitals have to absorb that volume, ... that affects quality of care for everyone, not just time-critical (patients),” Cash said.
Wellstar says the decision was prompted by patient admissions that were lower than average and a staff shortage.
The shift to outpatient care better reflects community needs and will allow the facility to focus more on preventative care. Other hospitals with emergency rooms, additionally, are within 10 miles (16 kilometers) of the East Point site, Wellstar says.
“We think that with this new model, we’ll be able to provide the right care at the right place and to meet the health care needs of the East Point community more effectively,” Wellstar CEO Candice Saunders told the AJC.
The hospital is located in a largely Black community that has a lower median household income than other parts of Fulton County.
Critics say Wellstar has not invested enough in the site to lure patients. Brandon Reese, a lobbyist for Wellstar, told the Fulton County Commission that Wellstar had spent more than $120 million on the hospital since 2016 but was not able to drive up patient interest enough.
The AJC points out that Wellstar is investing elsewhere, including looking to borrow $200 million to build a seven-story tower at Kennestone hospital in a more affluent part of Cobb County.