Murrieta hospital becomes home to region’s first neonatal ICU services

A gaping hole in children’s medical services was filled on Monday, Nov. 26, when a pair of health care providers opened the region’s first neonatal intensive care unit.

The 11-bed unit – the first in a vast area that stretches from Escondido to Orange County – opened at Rancho Springs Medical Center in Murrieta. The unit was created following an agreement between a regional hospital operator and a prominent San Diego children’s services specialist.

The neonatal unit marks a new medical service in the palette offered by Southwest Healthcare System, which operates hospitals in Wildomar and Murrieta and is also building Temecula’s first hospital. The neonatal unit also signals a further expansion of Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego in southwest Riverside County.

“We’re thrilled to join with Southwest Healthcare System to better serve the southwest Riverside community,” Kathleen Sellick, president and chief executive of Rady Children’s, said in a press release. “We are committed to providing the best possible care to the families of this region. Our hope is that this local access to Rady Children’s neonatal care will help ease the burden on families whose babies are born sick. Now, these families can stay close to home.”

Southwest officials also praised the partnership and the new services. Those officials also noted that the new unit will augment a birthing center that opened more than a year ago in a Rancho Springs annex.

“We are extremely excited about Rady Children’s operating here at the Rancho Springs Women’s Center,” Darleen Vlahovic, director of Rancho Springs Women’s Services, said in the joint news release. “The care, the nurses, the physicians, and the facility are all incredible.”

Rady Children’s at Rancho Springs Neonatal Intensive Care Unit is equipped with advanced instruments and the latest technology. It functions to observe, monitor, stabilize or resuscitate seriously-ill newborns.

At a minimum, the unit will operate with a board-certified neonatal physician as well as critical care and registered nurses, said Ben Metcalf, a Rady’s spokesman. More staff will be assigned to the unit as the number of patients increase, he said.

Although there is a high demand in this region for neonatal services, it is difficult to predict the day-to-day needs for the service, Metcalf said in a Tuesday morning telephone interview. He said Rady’s expansion in this area is an outgrowth of the opening of a Murrieta patient services office about two years ago.

“We definitely recognized there is a need for people in southwest Riverside County to have these services closer to home,” Metcalf said. He did not have any figures at hand on the cost to equip and operate the neonatal unit.

Based on its 15,911 patient admissions in the operating year that ended June 31, Rady’s is the largest children’s hospital in California. It operates a 442-bed pediatric care hospital in San Diego that serves that county as well as portions of Riverside and Imperial counties.

Rady Children’s is the only hospital in the San Diego area dedicated exclusively to pediatric health care and is the region’s only designated pediatric trauma center.

“U.S. News & World Report” in May 2012 ranked Rady Children’s among the best children’s hospitals in the nation in all ten pediatric specialties that the magazine surveyed.

Rady’s experience and the extent of its services were key to bringing a neonatal unit to southwest Riverside County. State licensing and permit regulations must be met before steps can be taken to open and operate such a specialized service, officials said.

“We’re fully licensed in our NICU here (in San Diego),” Metcalf said. “We’ve already got the infrastructure in place and the licensing in place.”

Brian Connors, Southwest’s director of marketing, said the neonatal agreement is the “first ever” for this area.

Rancho Springs is a 120-bed acute care hospital near Murrieta Hot Springs Road between Interstates 15 and 215. Its 30-bed emergency department includes four “fast track” rooms.

A $53 million annex that opened alongside Rancho Springs in February 2011 became the home of the hospital’s Women’s Birthing Center, which officials describe as the largest of its kind in the region. It boasts spacious, family-friendly private rooms that include 24 postpartum rooms, 17 labor and delivery suites, triage rooms, post anesthesia care units and two cesarean birth operating rooms.

A dispute with state and federal oversight agencies that centered on hospital operational issues delayed the opening of the annex for about three years.

Southwest Healthcare also operates Inland Valley Regional Medical Center in Wildomar. That facility, which includes a regional trauma center, was the focus of a $37 million expansion project that also opened in February 2011.

Southwest is also building a 140-bed hospital in southeast Temecula. That five-story hospital is more than half finished and it is expected to cost the parent company, Pennsylvania-based Universal Health Services, about $150 million when it opens next fall. The hospital plan was plagued by neighborhood opposition and lawsuits before it won final city and state approvals to proceed.

Connors said Southwest was able to overcome state and federal operational concerns in November 2011.

“The issues that Southwest was facing were resolved,” Connor said in a Tuesday afternoon telephone interview. “We got a clean bill of health from the state and federal governments.”

The joint press release quoted a local woman who praised Southwest’s services and applauded the opening of a neonatal intensive care unit in this area.

Nichole Townley said she had “a great experience” giving birth to her daughter at Rancho Springs about nine months ago. But Kayla needed intensive care services, so the infant had to be transported to Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego. Kayla, who is now “doing just great,” required 10 days of care and treatment at the San Diego facility, according to the release. 

“Now that Rady Children’s is operating on-site at Rancho Springs, I have even more peace of mind about having my next child here at the hospital,” Townley said in the release.

Connors said he hoped to meet soon with the parents of the neonatal unit’s first patient to give them a gift basket and thank them for their patronage. He said the opening of the new unit, as well as the progress being made on Temecula’s hospital, show that Southwest’s services are back on track.

“It’s an exciting time for the hospitals we have here,” he said. “We’re very excited about that.”

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