Connecticut Medical Center opens new pediatric facility

By Eileen Weber
March 4th, 2024
Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford, Conn. grand opening of the Medical Psychiatric Integrated Care Unit in January.
Grand opening of the Medical Psychiatric Integrated Care Unit at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford, Conn..

Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford, Conn. is one of two units in New England and the only one in Connecticut that provides both pediatric and psychiatric services. With its grand opening of the Medical Psychiatric Integrated Care Unit in January, this 12-bed facility focuses on patients who often need access to healthcare for multiple issues.

The unit, for children ages six to 17, boasts private rooms with bathrooms; a community space; rehabilitative gym; and private treatment rooms. For each patient, the facility allocates teams of medical and psychiatric personnel along with other specialists like social workers, hospitalists, and case managers.

Receiving significant backing from the state as well as special donors, Governor Ned Lamont responded in a released statement about the unit’s opening that it is a significant investment into the well-being of the state’s children.

“This expansion reflects our collective commitment to ensuring that children facing physical and mental health challenges receive the care and support they need,” he said. “Connecticut Children’s continues to be a vital partner in our mission to prioritize the health and future of our state’s children.”

Jim Shmerling, DHA, FACHE, president and CEO of Connecticut Children’s, talked about fulfilling a need for young patients in the region.

“A child who self-harms may have an injury or overdose and need to be on a med floor to stabilize. But the underlying problem is a mental health issue,” he said. “They might be in the hospital for a couple of weeks but can’t get a psych bed and, by the time they do, it could be three months. We can reduce the time in half and get them the intervention they need much earlier.”

Connecticut Children’s has more than 40 locations in Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts and is dedicated solely to children’s health. Since the pandemic, there has been a dramatic increase in mental health needs, so the facility comes at the right time.

According to 2022 data from the National Institutes of Health, suicidal ideation in high school students rose 40 percent in the decade before 2019. And nearly 20 percent of U.S. children ages three to 17 have an emotional, mental, developmental, or behavioral disorder.
Juan Salazar, MD, MPH, FAAP, physician-In-chief at Connecticut Children’s and professor and chair of Pediatrics at UConn, added insight to those statistics saying, “Thirty-seven percent of all patients under observation have a secondary mental health diagnosis.”

Sen. Saud Anwar, (D-third District) M.D., is a physician and legislator.

Sen. Saud Anwar, (D-third District) M.D., is a physician and legislator.

Sen. Saud Anwar, (D-third District) M.D., a physician and legislator, has been involved in legislation that pertains to children’s mental health. So when Connecticut Children’s opened its new unit, he was one of the first lawmakers to applaud the medical center’s addition.

In an email, he noted most professionals, when asked about children’s mental health, cite that it was a burgeoning problem before the pandemic but has become exacerbated since then. He pointed out that multiple stressors like socio-economic status, social media and its impact, and lack of family and community support structures can have a detrimental effect on children.

In his opinion, all those issues are addressed in this new unit.

“We have a collective responsibility to make sure all children are able to live in healthy environments, have access to healthy food, are protected from addictive substances, and remain active in physical playgrounds and be part of healthy communities so they can eat and breathe healthy,” he said. “Should a child face stressors, they should receive clinical support for early intervention.”

Within the first two weeks of opening, the facility only had four beds still available.

When asked if the building would outgrow capacity, Shmerling acknowledged, “We’ll outgrow capacity with full staffing by the fall. I expect within 18 to 24 months, we will have a waiting list. Twelve beds are not enough, but it is the space we have in the building. Over time, though, yes, we will want to expand,” he said.

He noted while the 12 beds may turn out to be insufficient, there is no time limit or constraints on the number of days for a patient’s stay. He said the only limiting factor is if they are stable.

Both Shmerling and Salazar discussed how much time, effort, and coordination it has taken to get this facility up and running. In addition to recruiting qualified staff with the proper medical and psychiatric certifications, they must be qualified to care for children as well.

A visit was made to Rhode Island’s Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence. Shmerling met with staff there because it has a similar, well-established unit. He said the feedback about creating a unique experience for children in a tailored space was insightful.

Shmerling said the unit needs state funding and special donors to stay afloat. “Because of the duality of it and the qualifications of the staff, this would be a limiting factor for other hospitals to take on,” he said. “It has to be subsidized. Until we align reimbursement with medical care, it is going to be a struggle.”

Salazar added, “This is what we have right now and it is unique. This is a holistic program with innovative care. The need is there for this type of patient.”

Sen. Anwar is optimistic about the future. “In my conversations with Connecticut Children’s, I know they have the staff and they are well-trained and primed to take care of children. This will remain sustainable as we continue to work to improve the healthcare workforce pipeline.”

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