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UPMC Children’s in Erie: Dedicated Pediatric Unit, Expanded Specialty Services Means Top Care Closer to Home

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Caring for a sick child can be a heart-wrenching experience.

Being able to access the highest quality of care close to home can certainly help.

Experts say not only can proximity to top care lead to better outcomes, but it can also provide practical, emotional and financial benefits for families — and a more supportive and integrated health-care experience within the community.

UPMC recognizes this and has made great strides to advance pediatric care in the region with the addition of the UPMC Children’s pediatric inpatient unit at UPMC Hamot and expanded outpatient services located at the UPMC Children’s Specialty Care Center – Erie inside UPMC Magee-Womens.

The new pediatric unit incorporates a playroom, colorful decor and interactive elements to create a welcoming and nurturing atmosphere.

The integration of a dedicated pediatric unit within UPMC Hamot signifies a commitment to providing comprehensive and specialized care for children, ensuring that the youngest members of the community receive the highest quality medical attention.

According to Lynn Rupp, UPMC Hamot’s vice president of Administrative Services, the expansion has been a gradual evo- lution. ”It was always UPMC’s plan when they integrated with Hamot that we would look to grow and gain services in Erie County to keep the care here,” she says. “We have done a lot with the develop- ment of women’s services, and now we’re taking pediatric services to the next level of UPMC Children’s.”

Today, UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is recognized not only regionally but nationally for its medical care. In 2023, UPMC Children’s Hospital was once again named to U.S. News & World Report’s Honor Roll of Best Children’s Hospitals — one of only 10 children’s hospitals in the country to earn this recognition.

“We are fortunate to be a top 10 pediatric hospital in the nation and we’re so proud of that,” explains Diane Hupp, president of UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “But our mission is to take care of every child we can in the best possible way, delivering top ranked quality pediatric care. With that, our goal is to keep children in their towns and home regions.”

Hospital officials gathered for the official ribbon cutting at the UPMC Children’s pediatric inpatient unit at UPMC Hamot in November 2023. From left are: Dale King, M.D., medical director for pediatric services and pediatric gastroenterology specialist at UPMC Children’s Specialty Care Center – Erie; Michael Comunale, vice president of UPMC Children’s; Diane Hupp, president of UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh; Brian Durniok, president of UPMC Hamot; Lynn Rupp, vice president of Administrative Services at UPMC Hamot; Kathleen Stark, D.O., division chief of pediatric hospitalist medicine; and Emma Mack, clinical director of nursing, UPMC Magee-Womens.

The new unit adds to the strong complement of care already available to pediatric patients at UPMC Hamot by expanding access to specialty care and streamlining care for children treated in the hospital’s Emergency Department.

“When a child comes to our Emergency Department, we want them to have as much access as possible to subspecialists onsite, so they stay in Erie for care,” explains Rupp.

Kathleen Stark, D.O., division chief of pediatric hospitalist medicine, has been instrumental in the efforts to expand the Erie hospital’s pediatric medical services. As Hamot’s first pediatric hospitalist,

she was pivotal in the development of UPMC Hamot’s inpatient physician group. This team, formed in 2017, now employs Dr. Stark, along with three full-time pediatricians. She has worked tirelessly with Children’s to devise protocols that standardized pediatric care delivered at all UPMC facilities.

“Our hope is that with this partnership we can keep Erie’s best-kept secret from being a secret,” she says. “We want to help those regional transfer patients who need expert inpatient care here in Erie, closer to their communities.”

Dedicated Inpatient Pediatric Care

Located on the fifth floor of UPMC Magee-Womens on East 2nd Street in Erie, the nine-bed pediatric unit provides care to children and their families throughout northwest Pennsylvania and southwestern New York.

The unit, which features cutting-edge medical equipment and child-friendly spaces, is designed to minimize stress and anxiety, and create an environment conducive to healing. It is equipped with advanced diagnostic tools, allowing health-care professionals to conduct thorough assessments and provide accurate diagnoses. The tools are often hidden from plain sight — tucked behind paintings, for instance — creating a more comfortable and engaging experience for young patients.

The design of the new unit also reflects a child-centric approach, acknowledging the unique needs and sensitivities of pediatric patients. The hospital has incorporated a playroom, colorful decor and interactive elements to create a welcoming and nurturing atmosphere.

Administrators explain that the child- friendly environment goes beyond aesthetics; it plays a crucial role in the emotional well-being of young patients, contributing to their overall healing process.

“Being in a hospital is probably one of the scariest times for kids,” explains Hupp. “This helps them feel as if they’re not in a scary place.”

UPMC Children’s nurses in Pittsburgh work with the pediatric nurses at UPMC Hamot through shared standards of care, policies and procedures, and clincial effectiveness guidelines for pediatrics. The team also includes a master’s-prepared child life specialist, who provides emotional support and education to help patients and families cope with being in the hospital.

According to experts, the consistency in providing standardized care leads to better patient outcomes. “Evidence has shown us that,” explains Hupp, “so we are working side by side with physicians on key diagnoses. The very common diagnoses that we see in pediatrics, like asthma, bronchiolitis and gastrointestinal issues, are what brings children into the hospital, even if it’s just for 24, 48 or 72 hours. But we want that care to be standardized.”

Left: Cory Gotowka, D.O., a pediatric hospitalist, examines a patient in the new UPMC Children’s inpatient unit at UPMC Hamot. Many of the diagnostic tools are hidden in plain sight, behind local artwork, to make the hospital experience less frightening.

Right: The new pediatric unit is tailored to the area’s youngest patients, including gaming systems in each room.

More Specialty Care Services

The significance of the new pediatric unit extends beyond general medical care to specialty services that address a wide range of pediatric health issues. The availability of specialized care close to home is a game-changer for families in Erie and the surrounding areas.

UPMC Hamot and UPMC Children’s have worked closely over the past two years to reduce the number of children who are transferred out of town for pediatric care. The new pediatric unit and expanded specialty services for children makes that a reality.

“We know that over the past year we’ve had close to 7,000 patients travel to Pittsburgh to receive pediatric specialty care. Our goal is to keep many of those children back in their hometown, making it easier on them and their families, while still receiving top-notch pediatric care,” says Hupp.

For example, a child with gastroenteritis, an asthma exacerbation, or a routine pediatric illness — those who don’t need an intensive care unit (ICU) — can now be cared for locally instead of being transferred out of town.

Another big benefit is the accessibility to infusions. Instead of traveling to Pittsburgh for treatment, UPMC Hamot can provide infusions for pediatric patients who have idiopathic juvenile arthritis, Crohn’s disease, or immunodeficiencies. Previously, pediatric infusion patients were traveling two hours to Pittsburgh and spending a few more hours hooked up to an IV before traveling back home. “We want to keep our kids in the com- munity,” explains Stark. “Our hope is that through the affiliation with UPMC Children’s, we can bring in more subspe-cialists into the inpatient side.”

Currently, UPMC Hamot has telemedicine services for many of the pediatric subspe- cialties, which has been extremely helpful. “But the more we can build and have those subspecialists seeing patients in person on our pediatric floor, the better we’ll be able to take care of even a very medically com- plex patient,” adds Stark. “We can take care of everything that does not need an ICU.”

Today, there are more than a dozen pediatric subspecialties available through UPMC Children’s Specialty Care Center – Erie. The office provides convenient access to highly skilled specialists who provide outpatient services, including diagnostic evaluations and follow-up care.

Specialty services in Erie include: allergy, diabetes, endocrinology, hematology, ge- netics, gastroenterology, nephrology, neu- rology, neurosurgery, pulmonary medicine, cardiology, telenutrition, Down syndrome clinic and child advocacy. During the past two years, the hospital hired two full-time pediatric cardiologists and a pediatric gastrointestinal specialist to see patients at the pediatric outpatient clinic.

Hupp says the availability of such services can remove challenges often associated with traveling for treatment. “I talked to a parent whose son has been treated for years with congenital heart anomalies. Having the cardiologist right here at Hamot is a game-changer for her.”

Today, most pediatric patients in northwest Pennsylvania can now stay in town for specialty care. There are more than a dozen pediatric specialties available through UPMC Children’s Specialty Care Center – Erie. Shown here is a patient with Dale King, M.D.

Dale King, M.D., medical director for pediatric services and pediatric gastroenterology specialist at UPMC Children’s Specialty Care Center, had been traveling back and forth to provide outpatient GI services for the past 12 years. He introduced endoscopy clinics in 2022 and then moved to Erie full time in 2023. In his new role as medical director, he oversees the broader expansion of pediatric services in the region — from Meadville to southwestern New York and northeast Ohio.

“It’s not just subspecialities, but it’s primary care, hospitalists and other services that support them — psychologists and social workers — I would love to see all of those expand,” he says. “The idea is to get the foundation established with the primary care and pediatric hospitalist medicine, and build from there.”

According to King, the ultimate goal is to continue to grow the Children’s facility in Erie. “We’ve got the inpatient unit with the hospitalists, and we have all the major subspecialties represented. We have a very solid foundation in primary care and general pediatrics,” he says. “The long-term vision would be eventually for this to be recognized as a mini UPMC Children’s that can offer a lot of what the main campus can offer.”

As families in Erie and the surrounding areas navigate the complexities of pediatric health, the presence of a world- class pediatric facility close to home is a beacon of hope. The positive impact of this development extends beyond medical treatment, fostering a sense of community, collaboration, and support for families facing pediatric health challenges.

The UPMC Children’s Specialty Care Center is located on the first floor of UPMC Magee-Womens in Erie.

UPMC Children’s in Erie has not only elevated the standard of pediatric care but has also become an integral part of the fabric of the Erie community, nurturing the health and well-being of its youngest residents.

“Our plan is to continue to invest and grow in additional subspecialties, additional research and additional services, increasing our level of care as we see the needs,” states Rupp. “Our plan is to continue to grow and keep higher level of acuity of kids right here in town, and this is just the beginning.”

For more information, visit UPMCHamot.com/Childrens