Facing changing demographics and a steep dropoff in demand, the state's oldest hospital will discontinue maternity care this year. HealthEast Care System's St. Joseph's Hospital made the move because fewer women are choosing the St. Paul facility for their baby deliveries.

Health system leaders announced the decision Tuesday, noting that women will still be admitted for maternity care through Sept. 7 and that babies will still be delivered until Sept. 10 at HealthEast's flagship hospital — Minnesota's first hospital when it was founded in 1853.

The aging population and the move of younger families to the suburbs were both factors for HealthEast, which is merging its hospital and clinic system with Fairview Health Services in order to stem recent financial losses and link its primary-care clinics in the east metro with Fairview's specialty services.

"Those projections show that more moms-to-be will be delivering their babies at our St. John's Hospital in Maplewood and Woodwinds Health Campus in Woodbury, while we see a steady decline of maternity patients at St. Joseph's with no projected improvement in the future," said Dr. John Kvasnicka, HealthEast's vice president of medical affairs.

Maternity care is often considered a gateway service for hospitals that will prompt women and their families to return for other forms of care. But other hospitals have surrendered it as well recently.

Allina Health's Unity Hospital in Fridley discontinued maternity care due to the popularity of Allina's mother-baby birthing center concept at nearby Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids. Many women also flocked to the newer Maple Grove Hospital, which over the past five years has become one of the largest providers of maternity services in the state.

The Mayo Clinic also recently announced plans to move all maternity services from its hospital in Albert Lea to its hospital in Austin.

State birth certificate data show that deliveries fell below 1,000 at St. Joseph's in 2000 and that they continued to decline. There were 956 births at the hospital in 2011, but only 515 last year, the state data showed.

"Our maternity care centers depend on consistent patient volumes to operate effectively and efficiently and maintain the best care experience for our patients and families," said Deb Hurd, HealthEast's chief nursing officer.

HealthEast is a leading provider of inpatient hospital and primary clinic care in the east metro, but it posted an operating loss of $7.9 million in its 2016 fiscal year. The health system has made other changes at St. Joseph's in response to revenue and patient demand, including a redesign this year of its inpatient mental health unit so that it can serve 50 percent more patients.

A spokesman declined to make a HealthEast executive available to discuss the end of maternity services at the hospital but said the change would not result in any job losses as nurses and other caregivers will switch to other assignments in the system.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744