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SSM Health trauma service cuts at DePaul Hospital could harm patients, advocates say

SSM Health DePaul Hospital in Bridgeton Missouri. There is a statue of Jesus in the foreground.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
SSM Health has announced DePaul Hospital's trauma center will be shut down later this year.

SSM Health will stop treating trauma patients at its hospital in Bridgeton next month, a move that will close the last care center of its type in north St. Louis County and send victims of gunshot wounds and other serious injuries to hospitals in St. Louis and Creve Coeur.

As a state-designed Level II trauma center, SSM Health DePaul offers around-the-clock availability of surgeons and other specialists who can treat gunshot wounds, complications from car crashes and other serious injuries.

The trauma designation will end Sept. 10, SSM officials said.

Civil rights advocates and emergency medical crews serving north St. Louis County have criticized the move, arguing it widens already existing gaps between the care that Black people and poor people receive and the care that’s accessible to people in wealthier parts of the region.

“It's going to have such a negative impact on a whole population of individuals who are already underserved in so many different ways,” said John Bowman, president of St. Louis County NAACP.

SSM Health officials say there were not enough patients needing trauma care to justify keeping the designation.

“Trauma care is a highly-specialized service — and medical best practice demonstrates we must treat a minimum number of patients to maintain the level of experience, training and equipment a trauma program requires,” SSM Health spokesman Patrick Kampert said in a statement. “Yet only a very small percentage of individuals treated in our emergency room each year require trauma services.”

EMS crews may bring some patients to DePaul for stabilization before they are moved to one of the region’s other trauma centers, Kampert said.

SSM Health’s decision to discontinue services leaves four trauma centers in the region: Mercy St. Louis, SSM Health St. Louis University Hospital and Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, and Mercy Hospital South in south St. Louis County.

The hospital will continue to accept patients 24 hours a day in its emergency room for strokes, heart attacks and other health problems.

State agencies, the American College of Surgeons and other groups designate hospitals as trauma centers based on their ability to respond to life-threatening injuries. Level I is the highest designation and reflects an ability to care for patients with the most complicated and severe problems.

Missouri emergency workers are required to take patients to the closest hospital that can treat their specific injuries, said Mark Flauter, the EMS chief at the Florissant Valley Fire Protection District.

“By law, we have to take the patient to a designated trauma facility, " he explained. “So while the patient may have a certain request, if that hospital is incapable of treating their injuries, we have to take them to a hospital which can.”

That means when the hospital discontinues the care in September, EMS crews will need to take some north county residents to the next-closest trauma center, Mercy Hospital St. Louis in Creve Coeur. The Level I trauma center is roughly 10 miles south of DePaul Hospital.

“It obviously leaves a tremendous void in trauma care for the residents of north St. Louis County," Flauter said. “You could realistically say anybody north of Page Avenue is affected by this decision.”

SSM Health also stopped treating trauma patients at another location in the northern suburbs, St. Joseph Hospital in St. Charles, in 2020.

Flauter said it is possible that some patients who would otherwise have been transported by an ambulance may need to be airlifted with a helicopter, depending on the location of the patient and traffic conditions.

NAACP officials said Medicaid patients in the area will lose a vital emergency service option for life-threatening injuries they may endure. North St. Louis County has one of the largest populations of Medicaid recipients in the region, and reducing services for them creates greater harm, said Bowman, the NAACP president.

Bowman is also a director of the Northeast Ambulance and Emergency Fire District. He said it is one of the busiest emergency districts in north St. Louis County, where paramedics respond daily to calls for serious trauma accidents.

Emergency workers in the district usually take minutes to transport trauma victims to DePaul, but now workers will have to travel a longer distance, which could be detrimental to a person’s health.

“If you get one gunshot per day, that's one trauma victim that if you make a decision to transport that person, 30 minutes as opposed to 10 minutes, then you have made a life-or-death decision basically,” Bowman said.

County NAACP chapter officials plan to meet next week with SSM Health executives to devise a plan that works for the community and the hospital system.

“I'm not a doctor, but I do know this: We have to look at every way possible and make sure that these services are provided somehow,” Bowman said.

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.