Low-income patients lose access to diverse specialists in wake of Wellstar AMC closure

Seventy-three percent of physicians at Wellstar's Atlanta Medical Center were non-white. And when the hospital closed Nov. 1, it displaced those clinicians — leaving a hole in a community that was working toward healthcare representation, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Nov. 29. 

Wellstar's decision to shut down the safety net hospital, which served a racially diverse, primarily low-income community on Atlanta's south side, raised equity concerns from local officials. "Wellstar said they don't want to be in the business of urban healthcare," Mayor Andre Dickens said at an October town hall. An equity center was proposed for the hospital's site, though the idea has since been tabled; according to Mr. Dickens, the community needs a hospital there. 

Some former physicians at Atlanta Medical Center told the newspaper they chose to work at the hospital because few specialists would provide care in the area. 

"I chose to work there because there were not many people in my specialty there. There were a lot of lower socioeconomic patients, but I didn't dwell on the financial reimbursement because I figured that if I did a good job and I took care of people, I would make an income," said James Fortson, MD, an emergency ear, nose and throat physician who formerly worked at Atlanta Medical Center.

Dr. Fortson, who previously served at nearby Emory University Midtown Hospital and Piedmont Atlanta Hospital, said Atlanta Medical Center has an especially diverse physician group, which created a close-knit environment.

Randall Morgan, MD, an orthopedic surgeon and the president and chief executive officer of the W. Montague Cobb/National Medical Association Institute, a research organization that investigates eliminating health disparities, told the newspaper patients benefited from the diverse provider population, too.

"When you have a large population, you have a diverse population," Dr. Morgan said. "People have better health outcomes and tend to be more [medically] compliant when they have providers that share their ethnicity."

That proximity to providers — and to the physical hospital —  is now lost to a population that often feels uncomfortable in the health system, according to Dr. Morgan. And those effects could radiate to other aspects of the community, such as its workforce. 

"I think [a hospital] is a stabilizing factor for communities because it supports other businesses. It supports a neighborhood. It's just like having a major department store or university," Dr. Morgan told the newspaper. "People, for generations, have counted on jobs at that place, and hospitals hire a lot of people."

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