SPOKANE, Wash. — Long emergency room wait times pose problems at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, leaving hospital staff and patients alike frustrated. Sometimes, the frustration is enough to make patients walk away entirely.
KREM decided to cover this story after multiple people within our own newsroom experienced wait times between 2.5 and 6.5 hours. One KREM reporter even left Sacred Heart before she was seen and ended up in emergency surgery at another hospital later that day.
Christina, a nurse at Sacred Heart, says staff recognize when a patient reaches a 6.5-hour wait time and do their best to address the problem. She added that this happens all the time.
“It’s at least…a three-day-a-week situation where we may cap up to our five or six-hour wait time,” she said.
Christina feels the patients’ frustration, as she sees up to 250 patients every day and decides who gets the next bed.
“Oh, it’s insane. It’s absolutely insane. It’s just, we have four patients on a regular basis,” she said. “Trauma’s coming in, ambulance, patients from up front.”
There could be dozens of patients waiting to be seen during busy hours, when about 50 people are on staff. Half of those staff members are nurses, some of whom say the staffing is inadequate.
“We as nurses feel our bedside time is hurried,” Christina said.
A Medicare study in 2017 showed 6% of people leave Sacred Heart’s waiting room without being seen. That’s more than twice the national average and comparable to hospitals in the Seattle area.
Locally, two times the amount of people leave Sacred Heart compared to MutiCare Deaconess, according to the study.
Since that report, Sacred Heart says they have added 18 beds and an overflow area.
But the people in the waiting room aren’t the only patients who need help. Sacred Heart says one-third of its patients come to the hospital by ambulance.
“So we’ll get the patient stable on scene, we’ll help the AMR package the patient and then they’ll take the patient to their hospital of choice,” said Lieutenant Josh Simpson.
According to Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer, 47% of all ambulances go to Sacred Heart. People that KREM spoke with say this contributes to long emergency room wait times.
Another factor affecting wait times: resources. Sacred Heart is the highest-level trauma hospital in the area. The emergency room has 43 medical beds, compared to 30 beds at Deaconess across the street.
Christina says people also abuse the system, coming to the hospital for reasons that are not health-related such as shelter or drug prescriptions.
With the only dedicated psychiatric wing in the region, Sacred Heart also takes in most psych patients.
This all adds up to more patients than hospital staff have time to treat.
“If I’m a patient, I don’t want my nurse coming in…tapping on the computer and running out. I don’t want my doctor coming and running out. I want time. But we don’t always have that time,” Christina said.
The hospital is working to improve wait times, starting with recruiting new staff and adding more facilities.
After several requests, KREM was able to sit down with the emergency room’s Chief Nurse Officer Susan Stacy.
“One of the things we have done is really looked at opening up access throughout our community in areas that aren’t emergency rooms for things that are non-emergent,” Stacy said.
This includes places like urgent care or a general practitioner’s office.
KREM asked Sacred Heart why these issues continue to happen, to which Stacy responded that each patient needs to be assessed based on their individual needs.
“It is not based on how busy we are, its based on what each individual patient has as symptoms,” Stacy said.
Regardless of the reason for long wait times, patients are still frustrated with the system. But leaders at Sacred Heart say they are continuing to have conversations about the issue.
“It’s a conversation we have. It’s a conversation we care about as well,” Stacy said.