The agony of ER waits: Flu season is making them worse

With flu cases hitting hard, Atlanta's ERs are busier than usual.
With flu cases hitting hard, Atlanta's ERs are busier than usual.

Credit: Carrie Teegardin

Credit: Carrie Teegardin

Headed to the ER?

Well, so are a lot of other people, with one of the worst flu seasons in years sickening people across Georgia. So, pack a sandwich and think about bringing a pillow, since your wait for treatment in one of Atlanta's ERs may be a long one.

At WellStar Health System, which operates hospitals across metro Atlanta, its emergency rooms are currently seeing 27 to 30 percent more flu patients than they did last year.

Grady Memorial Hospital's emergency department,which is always busy, is seeing 40 patients per day because of the flu or flu-like illnesses. At Northside Hospital's emergency rooms at its Atlanta, Cherokee and Forsyth locations, combined total flu cases in December were more than double last year's numbers.

"All over the country, flu season has hit hard so our number of patients has risen dramatically," said Nora Hoxha, director of emergency services at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has crunched the numbers and updated its rankings of ER wait times at the AJC's Hospital Checkup website.   These rankings, which are based on government reports, give consumers a look at the typical waits in the ER journey: how long its takes to see a medical professional and how long the overall ER stay is, depending on whether a patient gets to go home or ends up being admitted to the hospital.

An ER visit that lasts many hours is typical around Atlanta, even on an average day outside of flu season.

In a previous report, the AJC found that just because a hospital ER has quick service to see a "medical professional," that doesn't mean the overall time in the ER will be especially fast.

Some hospitals around town, including Piedmont, offer patients a real-time look at wait times at its ERs around the metro area. Others, such as WellStar Kennestone, give patients a chance to check-in online, allowing them to wait at home instead of at the hospital. (Obviously, this check-in is not for patients suffering from a life-threatening emergency such as a heart attack, stroke or poisoning.)

Given the crowds, emergency departments across Atlanta are working to find ways to make the waits as short as possible. Every hospital has its own strategy to speed things along.

Piedmont said it created a "fast track" area of its ER that can handle clear-cut flu cases that do not require a lot of testing. In fast check, which is similar to an urgent care system, patients can be in out within two hours, Hoxha said.

While "fast track" gets patients in and out more quickly, it also frees up space in the rest of the ER for more complex patients. Piedmont and other hospitals have emergency department observation units for patients who may need to be monitored for a while, but the unit gives hospital staff a place to move ER patients for monitoring so that exam rooms are freed up for the next patient on the ER's list.

WellStar health system said it uses a nurse "greeter" to triage patients when they arrive, so they see a medical provider as soon as possible. WellStar also uses patient "flow" techniques to speed things along, such as grouping similar patients in the same areas of the emergency department, or even treating patients in chairs rather than on gurneys or hospital beds.

While the flu is spiking the number of visits now, ERs are under pressure at almost all times, a fact that worries some in the healthcare system, the AJC found in a previous investigation of ER waits.

While hospitals do what they can to structure their ERs to reduce waits, they say the demand for emergency care will stay high.

"It’s very hard to eliminate the wait times for the [Emergency Department] altogether," Hoxha said. "As our population grows older and baby boomers age, they require a lot more care."

Click this link to check out the wait times:

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