Bozeman Health neonatal intensive care unit

This rendering shows Bozeman Health’s future neonatal intensive care unit. Bozeman Health is building the region’s first neonatal intensive care unit and hiring more doctors who specialize in maternal and infant care.

Helena patients with high-risk pregnancies or babies that need specialized services can now get care from the pediatric team taking shape at Bozeman Health.

Bozeman Health and St. Peter’s Health in Helena announced Monday the two systems have an agreement to work together on neonatal care and maternal-fetal medicine in southwest Montana.

The agreement means St. Peter’s patients with high-risk pregnancies can access telehealth consults with Bozeman pediatric specialists. It also offers Helena-area families access to Bozeman Health’s neonatal intensive care unit with doctors from each hospital working together on treatment.

Bozeman Health president and CEO John Hill said the announcement falls in line with a shared goal to “care for patients close to home.”

“We know that having a high-risk pregnancy, or delivering a baby that may need specialized care can turn what should be a joyous time into one that is stress-filled,” said Hill, adding the hope is the partnership alleviates some of that.

The agreement lays out a formal path for how each system’s doctors work together and an agreed level of service to fall in line with. Hill said the hospitals will also work through how they’ll share in the program’s financial gains or losses.

Neither hospital provided a copy of the agreement. Bozeman Health spokesperson Lauren Brendal said the document is confidential.

It’s the first partnership of its kind for Bozeman Health and Hill said more collaborations like it could follow.

St. Peter’s Health CEO Wade Johnson called collaboration between health systems “the vision for the future,” which he said will serve patients between Bozeman and Helena in need of critical services.

The agreement comes as Bozeman Health is mid-construction on the region’s first neonatal intensive care unit and hiring more doctors who specialize in maternal and infant care.

Last year, Bozeman Health announced the addition of its unit within a new women’s and children’s tower at Deaconess Hospital, due to open in fall 2020.

The addition brings a neonatologist and maternal-fetal medicine physician to the Deaconess Hospital care team — a major element of what St. Peter’s Health is gaining access to.

The Bozeman unit will open as a Level II NICU, meaning it can care for most babies born two months early. Bozeman Health plans to transition into a Level III unit to care for babies born three months early. The hospital hasn’t offered a timeline for when that could happen.

Despite the expansion, babies born less than 1 pound 10 ounces or critically sick babies with high-level medical complications will likely still have to travel for care.

St. Peter’s qualifies as a Level II care for infants.

St. Peter’s Chief Medical Officer Shelly Harkins said the hospital’s team of pediatricians will continue to care for “special care babies.” She said the partnership gives St. Peter’s access to a neonatologist and a maternal-fetal medicine physician on a daily basis.

Until now, the hospital has relied on a rotating maternal-fetal physician who visits Helena several times a month.

“Resources are very limited, particularly in Montana,” Harkins said. “A community can’t always sustain high numbers of specialists.”

In other words, Helena’s size (last estimated at 31,400 people) doesn’t tap into infant speciality care often enough to pay to hold onto the doctors and equipment those services call for.

Harkins said beyond doctors from each hospital working together to shape a patient’s care plan, St. Peter’s will weigh in on future Bozeman Health neonatal hires and how the program continues to take shape.

“This truly is our program too,” Harkins said.

Katheryn Houghton can be reached at khoughton@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628. Follow her on Twitter @K_Hought.

Support quality local journalism. Become a subscriber.

Subscribers get full, survey-free access to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle's award-winning coverage both on our website and in our e-edition, a digital replica of the print edition.