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 Catholic healthcare

Something precious has been lost in Kansas City; yet its passing has brought little mourning despite the thousands of people it has faithfully served over decades.

Catholic healthcare has been a vital part of our city’s healthcare infrastructure for generations, but that’s all changing. Four area hospitals (St. Joseph Hospital, St. Mary’s Hospital, Providence Medical Center, and St. John’s Hospital of Leavenworth) are beginning the transition to for-profit institutions as a result of sales by their sponsoring organizations.  The hospitals simply became too expensive to operate for the Sisters of Charity and Ascension Healthcare.

These faith-based facilities were not differentiated by their glimmering technology or by boasting the best clinical outcomes in the region, though they were committed to excellence in these arenas. Rather, they were differentiated by a once palpable spirit of caring – that invaluable, but intangible element that makes healing an art and brings comfort at the most difficult of times.

I’ve spent my life working with hospitals of all types – as a consultant and as an administrative leader. Thirty years ago, when I began my career, I rued the day when the spirit of caring was sacrificed to purely secular care.  I expressed these concerns in an essay about the future of American healthcare published by the American Hospital Association on their 100th Anniversary:

Once upon a time, health care was all about healing. It was driven by compassion, faith, and science that combined to meet patients’ emotional, spiritual, and physical needs. The field possessed a gentility grace; it was a time when healing was still viewed as a scared art.

Today, the industry is moving like a runaway train on a collision course with the profane. – Leifer, 1998

Faith-based hospitals should not go quietly into the night. Their passing should be recognized as a significant loss to us all. Medicine and healing are not merely a business. They embody a sacred element.

Even individuals, who are unconcerned about the loss of the sacred, may be troubled by other potentially deleterious consequences of the transition of not-for-profit organizations, such as our four, Catholic hospitals, to for-profit status.

Experts Speak-Out:

In his book, “A Second Opinion, Arnold Relman, M.D., Professor Emeritus at Harvard Medical School and Editor Emeritus of the New England Journal of Medicine, shared these findings:

One careful study in 2002 reviewed all the available published data for U.S. private for-profit and not-for-profit hospitals, pooled the results, and found that the risk of patient death was 2 percent higher in the for-profit hospitals. – Relman, 2007

An interesting report in 1999 compared Medicare spending in geographic areas in which all acute-care hospitals were for-profit with spending in areas in which all the hospitals were not-for-profit. Adjusted mean per capita Medicare spending on inpatient care, as well as total spending, was much higher in the for-profit area, and spending rose when all not-for-profit hospitals in an area were converted to for-profit ownership. – Relman 2007

George Lundberg, M.D., the editor of the Journal of American Medicine for 17 years stated it bluntly: “The profession of medicine has been bought out by business, and unless physicians take it back, it will devolve into a business technology in which faceless patients will be treated by faceless technicians.”

The point of this piece is not to denigrate for-profit institutions – many of which provide exemplary care. The intent is to sound a claxon that jars us out our complacency and causes us to look at issues, such as the loss of four, Catholic hospitals, with a new level of scrutiny, and perhaps an intense sense of loss.

–John Leifer