State stepping in to cut down on emergency room wait times

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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF)– NewsChannel 6 obtained documents received by state hospital administrators, emphasizing the stress the pandemic has placed on emergency rooms and ambulance services. The letter allows for hospital flexibility aimed at cutting down ER wait times.

Emergency room wait times have been on the rise because hospital beds are filling up with COVID-19 patients, and there is a nationwide staffing shortage.

“Emergency departments right now are doing the best that they can, but it is a situation where most emergency departments are overloaded,” chief medical officer at AU Health, Dr. Phillip Coule said.

But because of the letter from top Georgia hospital agencies, healthcare workers now have more leeway that will speed up the flow of patients through the hospital.

Emergency care is highly regulated by the federal government. According to the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, a medical screening exam must occur in the ER. But the document includes EMTALA limited waivers, saying medical screenings can now take place elsewhere.

“Like what we’re doing in the emergency department where we have essentially taken over part of the family medicine clinic and we are diverting our lower acuity patients to that location to kind of decongest the emergency department,” Dr. Coule said.

Once an ambulance reaches hospital property, the patient is the responsibility of the hospital, and staff must make every effort to get the patient inside, and the ambulance back on the road.

“Sometimes the EMS crew gets caught in this situation where there isn’t a bed to put the patient on, and if the patient can’t go to the waiting room or can’t go to triage, then it creates this situation where it ties up the EMS vehicle. That’s called wall time,” Dr. Coule said.

In a statement to NewsChannel 6, Gold Cross EMS director of business development Michael Meyers said, “We continue to monitor the challenges that the most recent spike in COVID-19 has presented our area. We continue to work with our Hospital Partners to move patients in and out of the hospitals as quickly and efficiently as possible. Due to the increased number of COVID patients locally, we have noticed an increase in wait times at the hospitals. We encourage everyone to only utilize the 911 system for true emergencies.”

The state has implemented a task force to establish clear lines of communication between EMS, hospitals, and 911 dispatch.


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