Monday, June 1, 2009

Turning Away Ambulances

WaPo reported in Sunday's paper on the problem of hospitals across the region diverting ambulances carrying all but the most critically ill and injured patients because of emergency room overcrowding.

The newspaper said the diversions force many less-critical patients to travel farther for care, increasing costs and potentially causing dangerous delays.

Here's what the paper said about HoCo General:

Different jurisdictions use different criteria about when to limit ambulance traffic. Maryland has two categories -- yellow alerts for when emergency rooms are too crowded to accommodate additional patients and red alerts for when emergency rooms lack beds for patients who require monitoring, such as those with cardiac problems.

Hospitals and local health authorities have tried to improve but have come up short.

Howard County General Hospital was on yellow alert 8 percent of the time in 2004 and 26 percent last year, The Post analysis found. It is the county's only hospital, so during those alerts, ambulance patients might be sent to Montgomery, Prince George's or Baltimore counties. Depending on where the patient is picked up, travel could take twice as long and tie up emergency medical service crews longer than authorities would like. Hospital officials said that despite the alerts, they rarely send patients to other hospitals but that those who are less critically ill face longer waits because of crowding.

Hospital officials in Howard said part of the problem can be attributed to population growth in the county, especially among elderly residents seeking care. This summer, Howard General will expand its emergency room for the second time in eight years, adding 18 beds. But that probably will not be enough with 5,500 new homes planned in Columbia and significant growth expected around Fort Meade because of military base realignment in the region. The issue has prompted the Howard County Citizens Association to form a task force to examine emergency care in the county.

"We're trying to make [the emergency room] as streamlined and efficient as possible to see the maximum number [of patients] we can see, but space continues to be a limitation," said Walter Atha, head of the hospital's emergency room.

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