Have Cancer, Must Travel: Patients Left In Lurch After Hospital Closes

Continuity of care is crucial for cancer patients in the midst of treatment, which often requires frequent repeated outpatient visits. So when Mercy Hospital Fort Scott, a rural hospital in Kansas, was slated to close its doors at the end of 2018, hospital officials had arranged for its cancer clinic — called the “Unit of Hope” — to remain open. Then “I got the email on Jan. 15,” said Reta Baker, the hospital’s CEO. It informed her that Cancer Center of Kansas, the contractor that operated and staffed the unit, had decided to shut it down too, just two weeks later.

“There are too many changes in that town” to keep the cancer center open, Yoosaf “Abe” Abraham, chief operating officer of the Cancer Center of Kansas, later told KHN. He added that patients would be “OK” because they could get treated at the center’s offices in Chanute and Parsons.

From Fort Scott, those facilities are 50 and 63 miles away, respectively. For dozens of cancer patients, the distance meant new challenges getting lifesaving treatment.

Nationwide, more than 100 rural hospitals have closed since 2010. In each case, a unique but familiar loss occurs. Residents, of course, lose health care services as wards are shut and doctors and nurses begin to move away.

But the ripple effect can be equally devastating. The economic vitality of a community takes a blow without the hospital’s high-paying jobs and it becomes more difficult for other industries to attract workers who want to live in a town with a hospital. Whatever remains is at risk of withering without the support of the stabilizing institution.

The 7,800 residents of Fort Scott are reeling from the loss of their 132-year-old community hospital that was closed at the end of December by Mercy, a St. Louis-based nonprofit health system. And cancer care in rural areas, which requires specialists and the purchase and storage of a range of oncology drugs, presents unique challenges. At its closing, the Unit of Hope served nearly 200 patients, with about 40% of them on chemotherapy treatment.