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Doctors in Texas to aid area hospitals

Cancer center partners with Southcoast chain

By Liz Kowalczyk
Globe Staff / May 21, 2010

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A group of community hospitals in Southeastern Massachusetts has taken the unusual step of partnering with doctors from an out-of-state academic medical center to provide cancer treatment — instead of one of Boston’s prestigious hospitals.

Southcoast Health System — which includes hospitals in Fall River, New Bedford, and Wareham — has signed an affiliation agreement with doctors from MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, one of the nation’s leading cancer hospitals, to help provide patient care, including advising the hospital on drug regimens, pain control, and chemotherapy safety and providing opinions on difficult cases.

The partnership, which requires Southcoast to pay the Texas physicians group an undisclosed sum in return for its expertise, is intended to raise the quality of care at Charlton, St. Luke’s, and Tobey hospitals, according to Southcoast executives.

“This enables us to provide the best care we can here locally,’’ said Dr. Therese Mulvey, physician-in-chief for the Southcoast Centers for Cancer Care.

Southcoast executives said they decided to go out of state because MD Anderson, which provides expertise to 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, said Ellen Lutch Bender, a Boston-based health care consultant who represents Southcoast.

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the state’s most well-known provider of cancer care, signed an agreement in the region last August, with Southcoast competitor St. Anne’s Hospital in Fall River. Under that deal, the renowned Boston cancer center shares oncologists with St. Anne’s and gives St. Anne’s patients access to Dana-Farber’s clinical trials, in which experimental treatments are tested.

St. Anne’s cares for 6,500 cancer patients annually. Southcoast’s newer cancer center has treated 1,200 patients in the past seven months, but is growing as the organization recruits new physicians, executives said.

Dozens of community hospitals in Massachusetts have joined forces with Boston teaching hospitals to provide a wide range of advanced care to patients from pediatricians and heart and cancer specialists.

Donald Thieme, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Community Hospitals, said that by partnering with out-of-state doctors, Southcoast can avoid the tensions that sometimes arise when community hospitals affiliate with Boston teaching hospitals.

Those partnerships sometimes have required or encouraged community hospitals to send more patients to Boston for care in return for using the name and expertise of a prestigious academic medical center.

Teaching hospitals “are being more careful about this now, because they know it’s a fatal flaw in their strategies,’’ Thieme said.

“Stealing patients is not the best way to make an affiliation work.’’

Chris Murphy, spokesman for Caritas Christi Health Care, which includes St. Anne’s, said only “the really complex cases’’ are sent to Dana-Farber, not because of a contractual agreement but “because it’s where they’ll get the best 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.

Brigid Pace, vice president for business development for the MD Anderson Physicians Network, said the agreement includes a rigorous quality improvement program, providing for video conferences between Southcoast and MD Anderson physicians several times a month to discuss cases, and an extensive review of patients’ medical records over the first six months of the partnership to look for areas that could be improved.

At the end of the three-year contract, the Texas doctors will measure whether the partnership has led to better care at Southcoast, she said.

Liz Kowalczyk can be reached at kowalczyk@globe.com.

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