HARLEM — Holding letters that spelled out "Protect Harlem Patients," nurses and doctors at St. Luke's Hospital rallied outside the hospital Thursday against what they fear are plans by the hospital to no longer maintain its status as a Level 1 trauma center.
The rating is the highest available and means the hospital has the surgeons and staff training necessary to handle any life-threatening emergency. Being treated at a Level 1 trauma center increases a patient's chances of survival by 20 to 25 percent.
There are four Level 1 trauma centers in Manhattan and the closest one to St. Luke's is almost 2 miles away at Harlem Hospital.
"That would be devastating for this community. Patients will die," said Jill Furillo, a nurse and executive director of the New York State Nurses Association, said at the rally outside the hospital at West 114th Street and Amsterdam Avenue across from Columbia University.
Jim Mandler, vice president for public affairs at Continuum Health Partners, which owns St. Luke's Hospital, denied that changes to the hospital's trauma level status were in the works.
"St. Luke’s-Roosevelt has no plans to cease operations of its Level 1 Trauma Service at St. Luke’s Hospital," Mandler said.
Nurses at the protest say they've heard similar promises from hospital officials in the past, including before the recent closure of the pediatric inpatient care and its detoxification unit. The hospital shuttered both during Hurricane Sandy, saying it needed the space to treat patients referred from other hospitals.
But after the storm, neither unit reopened. Patients who come to the hospital's pediatric unit and need to be admitted are now sent to St. Luke's Roosevelt on 59th Street or Mt. Sinai Hospital.
The concern over a possible change in St. Luke's trauma status is the latest in light of a consolidation of services that critics expect to take place in the wake of the agreement last week by Continuum Health Partners to merge with Mt. Sinai.
"We want to make sure people don't have to go to 59th Street or the East Side to get full patient care," said City Councilwoman Gale Brewer.
Mandler insisted that although the new hospital entity, Mount Sinai Health System, is still awaiting regulatory approval, there are "no plans to cease operation of a trauma service at St. Luke's."
"Continuum fully understand(s) that St. Luke’s Hospital is relied upon by the Harlem and Upper Manhattan communities for the delivery of vital health care services. It is our goal under the new entity, the Mount Sinai Health System, to continue to provide and enhance access to critical services," Mandler said in a statement.
Gwen Lancaster, a nurse at St. Luke's Hospital for 35 years and a member of the labor management team, said they were recently told in meetings by management that the hospital may not be able to keep its Level 1 trauma rating due to changes in regulation.
"When we heard rumors, we asked them for a straight answer," Lancaster said. "They said the state is changing the regulations and that may affect our trauma status."
New York State is changing the way it certifies Level 1's, or what they call regional trauma centers. The Department of Health used to certify trauma centers based on guidelines from the American College of Surgeons.
The state was falling behind in certifying that hospitals met the American College of Surgeons' current standards, which are updated every few years. The state decided in March 2012 to have the American College of Surgeons itself inspect and certify the city's trauma centers.
The standards cover everything from the number of patients treated each year — about 1,200 — to the type of surgeons available and how quickly they can get to the hospital; to the staff-to-patient ratio.
Plans are due this year from hospital CEOs on timelines for trauma inspection and certification by the American College of Surgeons. It is also possible that other hospitals that are not currently Level 1 trauma centers may decide to upgrade their rating.
According to sources for local medical advocacy groups, St. Luke's has the staff and the training but may lack the number of patients to qualify under new guidelines. The hospital says they treated 502 trauma cases last year and are on track to see the same number of trauma patients this year.
The Rev. Georgiette Morgan-Thomas, chairwoman of Community Board 9, has protested changes at the hospital and the planned merger.
"It is time for us to stand up. Otherwise, when we fall, there will be nobody there to care for us," she said.
Lancaster said there is a comfort to area residents in knowing that the highest level rated trauma center is close by. With Columbia University across the street, the trauma center is also necessary, she added.
"We can take anything, from a gunshot to a train crash. We have the doctors in place and the teams in place to handle anything at the drop of a hat," she said.