Chicago hospital sees ambulance visits double, up to 700 some months

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Chicago-based Mercy Hospital & Medical Center stopped receiving fire department ambulances earlier this year, meaning local residents have one less emergency care location and ambulances are inundating University of Illinois Hospital, according to The Chicago Tribune.

Since February, the number of ambulances going to U of I Hospital monthly has doubled, with more than 700 ambulances some months, according to city data cited by the Tribune. Emergency room wait times can range from six to 12 hours.

"We're handcuffed. We have no ability to provide dignity or care to these people," said Paul Pater, RN, emergency room nurse at U of I Hospital, according to the Tribune.

Staffing shortages and an uptick in patients who delayed care amid the pandemic are exacerbating the issue, nurses said. People too sick to sit in the waiting room are placed on stretchers by a nurse station, said Debreshia Anderson, RN, ER nurse and union steward for the Illinois Nurses Association.

The increase in ambulances to the U of I Hospital after Mercy stopped receiving them wasn't unexpected, said Lauren Smith, MD, director of ER operations at U of I. "When you take away healthcare from the community, the patients are still there."

She said the sickest patients are still treated immediately and 12-hour waits or longer are "outliers."  

The challenges "have not significantly impacted patient care," Michael Zenn, CEO of the University of Illinois Hospital & Clinics, said in a statement cited by the Tribune.

Originally, Mercy Hospital was set to close, as announced in July 2020, but community leaders and advocacy groups protested, saying it would leave a largely brown and Black community without access to care. Meanwhile, the hospital was designated a basic-level ER and stopped receiving fire department ambulances. The Chicago Fire Department won't transport patients to basic ERs, only comprehensive ones.

In June, several months after Mercy stopped receiving fire department ambulances, the center changed ownership from Trinity Health to nonprofit Insight Chicago, and is now called Insight Hospital & Medical Center Chicago. In a statement cited by the Tribune, Insight Chicago pledged to operate the facility as a full-service hospital with a comprehensive ER and intends to accept fire department ambulances "in the near future." 

Though three other hospitals are within a few blocks of each other, U of I Hospital is technically the closest to the area served by Mercy.

Patients are required to be taken to the nearest hospital appropriate for medical need, said Larry Langford, spokesperson for the Chicago Fire Department. Some patients may be taken farther if those centers can better meet certain needs, though most patients with injuries that are not life-threatening go to the nearest available hospital.

Even going on bypass more often wouldn't offer total relief, Dr. Smith said, with only about 20 percent of the ER's patients from ambulances. She said the hospital is working to get patients discharged faster and is also receiving $65 million from the state, some of which will be used to open a clinical decision unit by the ER to rapidly screen incoming patients.

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