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Overcrowding forced hospital to issue more alerts in 2006

January 08, 2007|by KAREN HANNA

HAGERSTOWN - If you go to Washington County Hospital for treatment of a 24-hour virus, you might spend as much as a third of the illness - or longer - waiting to see the doctor.

The amount of time sick and injured people spend in the emergency room waiting area has increased recently, but officials said patient care has not suffered. Because of a lack of bed space and growing numbers of patients, the hospital has requested ambulances go elsewhere dozens of times over the past few months.

Lou Ann Myers, clinical manager for the emergency room, said Thursday that about 260 patients were in beds at the hospital. The hospital is licensed to care for as many as 274 patients at one time, spokeswoman Maureen Theriault said.

The hospital is "busting at the seams," Myers said.

The Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems, which tracks the number of times patient overcrowding forces hospitals to divert patients, shows that Washington County Hospital has reported lacking space for patients needing certain types of care four times this year.

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Between Jan. 1, 2006, and Dec. 31, 2006, the hospital issued 59 alerts, signaling it had run out of capacity to treat certain types of patients. Yellow alerts, which request ambulance crews find secondary facilities for their patients, were the most common.

"The biggest thing is Hagerstown's outgrowing one hospital," Community Rescue Service Capt. Robert Buck said.

The Herald-Mail has reported that a proposed hospital off Robinwood Drive would have fewer beds than the current facility. Theriault and Myers said the new facility allows more flexibility and efficiency.

"I'm not a clinician. I think what (the situation requires) is the flexibility that we don't have," Theriault said.

Buck said crews have spent more than an hour waiting at the hospital to move their patients from stretchers to beds, forcing extra staff to come in during scheduled time off. The wait usually is 10 minutes or less, he said.

Some companies take their patients to hospitals in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Frederick County, Md., when Washington County Hospital goes on yellow alert.

CRS doesn't have to do so, Buck said. A crew only can be diverted if the ambulance can get to a secondary facility within 15 minutes, he said.

Hospital staffing is adequate, Myers said.

"This is a space issue," Myers said.

Mary Beachley, chief of division for health-care facilities and special programs at Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems, said "a perfect storm" of problems has contributed to overcrowding and a surge in alerts at hospitals across the state.

Among the problems she cited were overbooked private-care doctors, understaffed hospitals and declining bed space.

"The emergency room is kind of the canary in the mine because that's where everybody goes when they can't get care any place else," Beachley said.

Frederick Memorial Hospital issued 90 alerts during 2006, compared with 51 in 2005.

Myers said emergency room staff have been busy treating a variety of illnesses, including upper-respiratory and intestinal bugs.

Fifteen to 20 people have waited in the emergency room during the hospital's busiest times recently, Myers said. Some waits have been as long as 10 hours, she said.

About 30 percent of emergency room patients are uninsured, Myers said.

"We're the safety net for everybody else," said Joan Fortney, clinical manager for the trauma program.

The hospital's patients are mostly elderly, and the lengths of their stays have been increasing, putting pressure on bed capacity throughout the hospital, Myers said.

So far, no surgeries have been canceled, but Myers said space usually reserved for same-day surgical patients is being used for in-patient care.

Hospital staff and ambulance crews are providing patients the care they need, Myers said.

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