A big announcement out Wednesday from Prineville's Pioneer Memorial Hospital: It's shutting down its obstetrics department, meaning babies will no longer be born there.

Hospital CEO Don Wee told NewsChannel 21 Wednesday it's too soon to have gotten any public feedback on the change, but he admitted, "I'm sure it will be a disappointment."

The decision comes as the entire country is facing a major shortage of primary care doctors, and rural hospitals are sometimes the hardest hit areas.

At Pioneer Memorial, there are four primary care doctors who also deliver babies. But now, three of them are either moving away, or have decided to stop practicing obstetrics. That means, starting in 2010, it could take an extra hour for women going into labor to make it to a hospital.

Ashlee Wilson is one such patient. As of Wednesday morning, she was just hours from becoming a first-time mom, and meeting her baby girl.

Wilson lives in Prineville, but early in her pregnancy was traveling to Bend for check-ups.

"It was like a half-hour. I always had to leave a half-hour early," she said.  "I think if I was in labor, that really would not be a fun drive."

Which is why she's relieved the opportunity still exists to deliver little Peyton Gail in her own hometown. 

But that option will soon be off the table, forcing other expectant moms to drive to the next closest hospital, in Redmond, Bend, or even Madras.

"It's simply an issue of supply and demand," Wee explained.  "Right now, we have the demand, but not the supply."

The primary care doctors who also deliver operate out of private practices in Prineville, but also have privileges to work in the hospital; they are not actually on the hospital payroll.

Recruiting new doctors is not an easy task - Pioneer Memorial has been working on it for two years, but so far has been unsuccessful.

"We only capture about 50 percent of our OB market anyway," explained Wee. "So the other 50 percent are already traveling elsewhere for these services anyway."

Still, on average, 150 babies are born there each year.  Now, only a handful will be, in the ER, for emergency deliveries and women who go into labor so quickly, there's no time to go anywhere else.

From here, the Prineville hospital will be working with other local hospitals and clinics to help make a smooth transition, as they prepare for the additional load of obstetrics patients.

"We're going to continue to fulfill primary care needs here, and try and do the best we can, and take it from there," Wee said.

Pioneer Memorial Hospital hopes to continue offering pre-natal care through its clinic, but those details still have to be worked out.

The roughly four nurses who work in the birthing center will be moved to other positions at PMH, or if they want to stay in the OB field, they'll have the possibility of moving to other local hospitals.

If doctor recruitment does improve, the hospital says it will try to bring its birthing center back in the future.

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Here's the hospital's news release about the decision:

Pioneer Memorial Hospital in Prineville announced Wednesday plans to phase out its obstetric services by the end of 2009.

The difficult decision means that babies will no longer be born at the Prineville hospital due to a decrease in the number of primary care physicians available in Crook County to provide the service.

"We have spent more than two years working to recruit new primary care physicians who offer obstetric services to Crook County, but so far we've been unsuccessful in that effort," said Don Wee, CEO of PMH. "We will continue to recruit and hope that if we are able to stabilize the primary care situation in Prineville, we will be able to reevaluate offering obstetrical services in the future."

A shortage of primary care physicians exists nationwide. The American Academy of Family Physicians predicts that the United States will be short more than 40,000 primary care physicians within the next 10 years. Several of the physicians who currently provide obstetric services in Prineville have indicated plans to leave the area or to stop providing obstetric care in coming months.