Jan 31, 2022 - News

ER wait times grow longer at Des Moines' overstretched hospitals

Photo illustration collage of the Des Moines Mercy Hospital ER.

Photo illustration: Allie Carl/Axios. Photo: Linh Ta/Axios

The wait time for patients seeking emergency care at Des Moines hospitals has spiked since last October — resulting in sick patients waiting sometimes up to ten hours for treatment.

Why it matters: The recent Omicron wave has put an already stressed hospital system near its breaking point, resulting in delays for care and sometimes extreme situations.

  • Patients are often stuck in waiting rooms for twice as long as the estimated median times last year — and many are giving up and leaving without care.

Zoom in: The wait for care has doubled for patients in the last eight months at UnityPoint's emergency rooms, which include Lutheran, Methodist and Methodist West.

  • Since August, the median wait has averaged three to four hours, but it can spike to 10+ hours depending on the time of day.

What they're saying: Clint Hawthorne, UnityPoint's medical director of emergency departments in Des Moines, told Axios that the wait at one of their ERs was so long one day, a patient went unconscious and had to be resuscitated in an ER hallway.

  • Another time, ER staff recently had to treat a patient under cardiac arrest in a room where someone had just died due to the limited hospital space, Hawthorne said.
  • "If you talked to us a year ago, it would have seemed really extreme, but now ... (the situations) don't surprise anybody at all," he said.

Meanwhile, the wait time at Broadlawns has increased by 40% since October, growing from an average 66-minute wait to 106 minutes, according to a spokesperson.

  • MercyOne didn't have estimates for their two emergency rooms.

Patients are also leaving the ER before getting treated at higher rates

  • Historically2-3% of UnityPoint patients seeking emergency care would leave before seeing a doctor, but that's risen to 7-8% in recent months, Hawthorne said.
  • On one unusually busy day, it was 25%.

The bottom line: "We just want them to know that we want to care for them," Hawthorne said. "We're doing the best we can, but it's probably going to take us longer to do what we normally do."

What's driving the waits
Illustration of a collage featuring Dr. Clint Hawthorne, left, and Dr. Hijinio Carreon.
(Left) Clint Hawthorne and Hijinio Carreon. Photo illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios. Photos: UnityPoint Des Moines and MercyOne Des Moines

Local health leaders cited three new challenges that are making it more difficult for hospitals to provide emergency care:

  1. The recent Omicron surge has driven COVID-19 hospitalization numbers higher than at any point in 2021.
  2. The variant's high transmissibility is causing more workers to call in sick as hospitals struggle to fill staffing shortages.
  3. Hospitals beds are filled up for longer periods of time, since patients with the virus must often stay for weeks, versus days.

State of play: Though hospitals dealt with higher hospitalization and death rates in 2020, worker shortages are forcing many to scrape by with fewer medical staff, especially nurses, on hand.

  • So even if there are available beds, hospitals may be unable to use them because there's no one to take care of the patients, Hawthorne said.

What they're saying: The recent Omicron surge has "had a profound impact on emergency departments across Iowa," said MercyOne chief medical executive Hijinio Carreon.

  • "In our very own emergency department, our team members have questioned how much more they could take," Carreon said.
Meet the patients
Illustration of a hospital emergency room with different colored shapes around it.
Photo illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios. Photo: Linh Ta/Axios

Late Jan. 23, most Iowans were winding down at home before the start of another work week.”

  • But in the waiting room at Methodist Hospital, the front doors opened and closed continually as patients arrived, describing their ailments to the receptionist.

Milton Milligan, 58, sat in Methodist's ER waiting room, coughing by the corner. He came in because he was coughing up blood and had concerns about his lungs and chest.

  • The Des Moines resident said he had already waited at least an hour, but was told it could take up to four hours to see someone.
  • "I feel weak," Milligan said.
Milton Milligan waiting at Methodist downtown's ER.
Milton Milligan waiting at Methodist downtown's ER. Photo: Linh Ta/Axios

Outside of the emergency room, several Des Moines residents recounted their experiences with long ER waits to Axios.

Lee Buell visited Methodist West on a late morning this fall for severe abdominal pain.

  • After waiting all day to get seen, she was transported to the downtown location for tests, arriving around midnight. She later learned she had a massive gallstone.
  • "I have a pretty high pain tolerance but I think I sounded like a wounded animal," Buell said.

For Buell, the experience was the most painful thing she's ever endured. But, she said she understands hospitals are under stress.

  • "There's no use being crabby," she said.
How you can help
Photo illustration collage of the Des Moines Broadlawns urgent care.
Photo illustration: Maura Losch/Axios. Photo: Linh Ta/Axios

While the pressure feels unrelenting, there are several ways the general public can help ease the burden on hospital systems.

What they're saying: The number one thing Iowans can do to help is get vaccinated and boosted for COVID-19, Hawthorne said. It'll reduce the chances of severe illness and hospitalization.

  • Social distance and use a surgical-grade mask in public to reduce your risk of contracting and spreading the virus, Carreon said.

What else: There's a "high volume" of COVID-19 patients with mild symptoms that are showing up to the ER and requesting a test, said Nicole Gilg, a doctor at Broadlawns.

You can also call health care providers before deciding whether to visit an urgent care or an emergency room.

  • Broadlawns has prepared a guide to help inform such decisions.

But ultimately: "We ask that you be patient, kind and empathetic," Carreon said.

  • "Show us the same care we show you."

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