When Waltham Hospital shut its doors to patients last month to become Sterling Medical Center, a city of nearly 60,000 residents lost its only emergency health facility, and suburban Boston lost another battle in the fight to save community-based healthcare. It is hard to imagine how Waltham, a city of 13 square miles, can function without a hospital. Newton-Wellesley Hospital is only five miles away, but according to an article in Sunday's Daily News Tribune, this means additional transport time of 10 to 12 minutes, which is certainly not a negligible difference. Waltham remains lucky, however, to have such a hospital nearby. Newton-Wellesley, unlike the old Waltham Hospital, is affiliated with Partners HealthCare, a network of hospitals based in Boston that includes the teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, among others.

When Waltham lost its affiliation with Caregroup, the hospital was doomed to failure. It was given a short reprieve, however, when a real estate developer bought the land under the hospital in order to use its parking lots to build apartments and a parking garage, and allowed the hospital to remain at a cost of one dollar per year. But the grassroots movement that negotiated that deal was unable to make the hospital profitable. It is simply too difficult for a community-based hospital to compete in a market that includes hospitals affiliated with the large teaching hospitals in the area as well as the hospitals in Boston.

Community-based hospitals are still important, however, even in such a well-stocked market. Waltham is a large city and it is now without proper healthcare facilities. Beyond the difficulty of transporting patients for emergency care the extra distance to Newton-Wellesley, there is also the problem of ensuring city residents continue to seek care at all. In a July 28 Daily News Tribune article, Alan Sager, a professor of health services at Boston University School of Public Health and a trustee at Waltham Hospital, said 30 percent of patients would cease to seek care entirely, as their trusted doctors would be gone.

Waltham Hospital, 117 years old when it closed, stayed open in large part because of the vigilance of its supporters, the residents of Waltham. Their community will not be the last in the Boston area to lose their emergency care. According to Sager, hospitals in the area have been competing for 15 years and as the entire area hospital network decreases in size, the system will be overloaded, threatening the healthcare of suburbanites forced to drive into Boston to receive proper medical attention. Waltham, as well as its neighbors, must look to solve this frightening trend.