'Overcrowded is par for the course': Physicians on Atlanta's healthcare system strain

Atlanta's healthcare system is routinely operating under significant strain — a situation physicians, patients and local officials worry could lead to larger problems, NBC News reported Feb. 7. 

Two of the city's hospitals — Grady Memorial Hospital and Emory University Hospital Midtown — are often listed as "severely" or "dangerously" overcrowded on a statewide hub used by EMS and hospitals for care coordination efforts. 

"Overcrowded is probably par for the course," Nataisia Terry, MD, medical director of the emergency department at Emory University Hospital Midtown, told NBC, adding the hospital has seen ED volumes surge in the past year. 

Numerous reports have pointed to worsening capacity strain and barriers to healthcare access in the region after the closure of Atlanta Medical Center in the fall of 2022. When Marietta, Ga.-based Wellstar Health System closed the 460-bed facility, at least a dozen of its affiliated facilities also closed. Hundreds of physicians who worked at practices near the hospital also moved, retired, or shut down their practices in the year after it closed, worsening access to primary care and other specialists. 

Meanwhile, the city's population grew nearly by nearly 67,000 from 2022 to 2023. 

In the years leading up to Atlanta Medical Center's closure, Wellstar invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the facility and pursued multiple efforts to find a partner or buyer to prevent the facility's closure, a spokesperson for the health system told Becker's.

"We conducted an exhaustive search for a partner or buyer, beginning three years before the closures, speaking with local, regional and national hospital and health systems – both nonprofit and for profit. Unfortunately, each potential partner or buyer we spoke to reached the same conclusion – AMC was not sustainable. This is not the outcome we wanted, and we are grateful for the hospitals and their staff throughout Metro Atlanta, including our other Wellstar hospitals, that have welcomed the peoplewho previously received care at AMC."

Wellstar is also investing $5 million in Southside Medical Center, a federally qualified health center, to establish, "a medical home for people in East Point seeking preventive and urgent medical care," the spokesperson said.

NBC spoke with Michelle Cooke, MD, who previously worked at a Wellstar office and has since opened a private practice. Many of her patients, she told the news outlet, haven't seen a doctor in more than a year because of difficulties in finding appointments. 

"Unfortunately, I think we're going to see a huge rise in morbidity and mortality, just because a year of people not getting their blood pressure checked, a year of not getting appropriate cancer screenings, like mammograms, pap smears — so much of that builds up that we're going to see terrible effects in the next five to 10 years," Dr. Cooke told the news outlet.

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