Northern Light Health Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor is pictured on Aug. 26, 2021 Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

A number of Maine hospitals saw their safety ratings from a national watchdog group decline, joining a nationwide trend of hospital patient safety measures worsening during the COVID-19 pandemic after years of improvement.

Seven of the 16 Maine hospitals the Leapfrog Group evaluated received an A this fall, two were scored at a B and the remaining seven received a C, including Bangor’s two general hospitals: Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center and St. Joseph Hospital.

While no hospital in Maine received a D or F, all but one of the hospitals given a C this fall had scored higher grades three years ago, before the pandemic reached Maine. EMMC, however, hasn’t improved its score since late 2019 when it was the only one to receive a C.

One other Northern Light Health hospital — Northern Light Maine Coast Hospital in Ellsworth — also received a C in this most recent round of grades.

Meanwhile, A.R. Gould Hospital in Presque Isle, another Northern Light hospital, received an A, and Northern Light Inland Hospital in Waterville scored a B.

The group didn’t evaluate all Maine hospitals.

The Leapfrog Group gives 3,000 U.S. hospitals bi-annual letter grades based on more than 30 measures of patient safety, ranging from how well hospitals protect patients from preventable errors, accidents, injuries and infections to how well clinicians communicate with patients.

Across all hospitals graded nationwide, 33 percent received an A, 24 percent received a B, 36 percent received a C, 7 percent received a D and less than one percent received an F, according to the Leapfrog Group.

The most recent Leapfrog evaluation noted several areas in which EMMC performed poorly, including the responsiveness of hospital staff and preventing complications during and following treatment. The hospital performed below average on ratings for accidental cuts and tears during surgery and dangerous objects left in patients’ bodies following surgery.

Though EMMC saw its safety grade drop from B to C between the spring and fall of 2019, and has retained the C grade since then, the hospital has worked to improve patient safety, said hospital spokesperson Kris Currier. Those improvements include “decreased infections from catheters, pressure injuries and surgery, and improving communication through frequent safety huddles.”

“By better communicating with each other and our patients’ families, we can keep patients safe both in the hospital and once they go home,” Currier said.

St. Joseph Hospital, meanwhile, performed poorly in handwashing, patients getting bed sores and rates of sepsis infections following surgery, according to Leapfrog. The hospital received a B in Leapfrog’s spring 2022 grades before dropping to C this fall.

St. Joseph Hospital attributed its lower score to the fact that it did not complete some portions of the Leapfrog survey, “a key variable in comparison to previous survey submissions,” and devoted its resources elsewhere during the COVID-19 pandemic, hospital spokesperson Amy Proffitt said.

“Despite the challenges brought on by the pandemic, the team at St. Joseph Healthcare remained resilient and committed to providing quality, compassionate care,” Proffitt said.

St. Joseph also received three out of five stars from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which scores hospitals on a range of quality and performance measures. EMMC, Maine’s second largest hospital, received two stars, the lowest rating in the state alongside Northern Light Sebasticook Valley Hospital in Pittsfield.

Leapfrog earlier this year noted the declines in patient safety measures the group has detected reinforced the findings of studies on how patient care worsened due to strains on the health care system and workforce during the pandemic.

“The health care workforce has faced unprecedented levels of pressure during the pandemic, and as a result, patients’ experience with their care appears to have suffered,” Leapfrog Group President and CEO Leah Binder wrote in May. “We commend the workforce for their heroic efforts these past few years and now strongly urge hospital leadership to recommit to improved care — from communication to responsiveness — and get back on track with patient safety outcomes.”

While some Maine hospitals saw their safety grades slip during the pandemic, others are watching their scores rebound as COVID-19 rates wane, but are replaced by a swell of RSV and flu cases.

In Augusta, MaineGeneral Medical Center received its first A this fall after seeing only Bs and one C since the fall of 2019.

Maine Medical Center in Portland, the largest hospital in the state, has received five consecutive As since the fall of 2020. It previously received Bs in 2019 and spring 2020. Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick and Southern Maine Health Care in Biddeford, which are also part of the MaineHealth network, also received A grades.

Meanwhile, Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, another MaineHealth hospital, received its second consecutive C grade after maintaining an A grade from the fall of 2019 to the fall of 2021.

MaineHealth spokesperson John Porter said the C score “does not reflect the hard work and dedication of the care team,” but the hospital has increased patient and staff education in areas the Leapfrog Group noted as needing improvement: hand hygiene practices, C. diff infection rates and patient falls.

“Though changes to safety grades come slowly, we are already making headway toward our goals and hope to see improvements in the coming reporting periods,” Porter said. “We participate in this semiannual Leapfrog Group survey because it makes us better and empowers us to continuously improve our processes. It also supports our vision of working together so our communities are the healthiest in America.”

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Kathleen O'Brien

Kathleen O'Brien is a reporter covering the Bangor area. Born and raised in Portland, she joined the Bangor Daily News in 2022 after working as a Bath-area reporter at The Times Record. She graduated from...