Community hospitals forge clinical affiliations with academic medical centers

Rather than disappear in the shadows of top academic medical centers, some community hospitals have begun embracing all that "big brother" hospitals have to offer through formal clinical affiliations.

Most often, one or more small hospitals will link up with a local leader, such as with the agreement between Boston's renowned Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and St. Anne's Hospital, part of Caritas Christi Health Care, in Fall River. Under that deal, Dana-Farber shares oncologists with St. Anne's and gives the smaller hospital's patients access to Dana-Farber's clinical trials, in which experimental treatments are tested, reports the Boston Globe.

But another group of hospitals in Southeastern Massachusetts recently broke that mold and waged an alliance with Dana-Farber's national competitor, the prestigious MD Cancer Center in Houston. Under the three-year-contract, for an undisclosed fee, the Texas experts will help Southcoast Health System--which includes Charlton, St. Luke's, and Tobey hospitals--provide patient care, including advising the hospital on drug regimens, pain control, and chemotherapy safety and providing opinions on difficult cases.

Southcoast executives said they decided to go out of state because MD Anderson, which advises seven other community hospitals across the country, offered the most comprehensive program. But the partnership also could help Southcoast respond to increased competition for oncology patients in its market and retain its volume, Ellen Lutch Bender, a Boston-based healthcare consultant who represents Southcoast, told the Globe. Going out of state also eases some of the tensions that may arise when partnering with Boston academic centers, which sometimes create pressure for community hospitals to send more patients into the city for care.

Keith Hovan, chief executive of Southcoast Hospitals Group, said Southcoast doctors still will refer patients to Dana-Farber and other Boston teaching hospitals if they can't be cared for in the community because of the complexity or rarity of their illness. And, the affiliation might lead to a small number of patients going to MD Anderson. But, he said, "the lion's share of cancer care can be given in a community'' hospital.

Also announced this week, Anna Jaques Hospital in Newburyport, Mass., will be forging a local alliance with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center to strengthen its cardiovascular and high-risk pregnancy care, according to Newburyport's The Daily News. The move will allow Anna Jaques to offer high-risk ultrasounds on-site and coordinate care with the Harvard teaching hospital, among other initiatives in its strategic plan, according to Anna Jaques president and CEO Delia O'Connor. "I think everybody needs a big brother," O'Connor added.

Stanley Lewis, the senior vice president of network integration for BIDMC, told the newspaper that patients will receive care at Anna Jaques when appropriate and when necessary, will have access to complex care in Boston. "The goal is to ensure the services are done where appropriate to do it," Lewis said.

To learn more:
- read this Boston Globe article
- read this piece in The (Newburyport) Daily News