Trust & Verify: Why are ER wait times so long at Lee Health?

Published: March 2, 2022 6:53 PM EST
Updated: March 10, 2022 4:11 PM EST

Waiting, waiting and still waiting. It is a problem across the country. Emergency departments buckling under pressure.

Here at home, Lee Health is well aware of the issue. They’ve had it for years as WINK reported back in 2015.

Terry Stark knows all about waiting. He brought his wife Karen to HealthPark Medical Center on a recent Monday morning when she woke up in pain.

“They took her in, they ran some tests, determined that she had a tumor on her brain. The problem was during all this time, she was in a bed in a hallway,” Stark said.

After 10 hours of waiting in the hallway, word arrived a surgeon at Lee Memorial near downtown Fort Myers could operate.

“They said there’s a room available here. The transport brought her here. By the time they got her here, there was no room available,” Stark said.

That was Monday, Feb. 7. They waited in the hallway again for two days. Starks said his wife finally got into a room Wednesday night, 56 hours after first arriving at HealthPark’s emergency room.

“We’ve been married for 31 years, I wasn’t leaving her in the hallway anywhere. I’m just there, I’m just there holding her hand literally. I have no value because I can’t ease the pain. I can’t help her. I can’t, I can’t even tell her. This is what’s gonna happen next because Lisa, I don’t know what’s gonna happen next. So is this the best we can do during this time? And if it wasn’t Covid related, what is causing this and how are you going to fix it?” asked Stark.

That seems to be the case for anyone heading to hospital emergency departments. It is a situation Lee Health President and CEO Larry Antonucci readily acknowledges.

“Unfortunately, things are continuing to get worse as it relates to our capacity,” Antonucci said at a press conference on Feb. 3.

That is very similar to what Lee Health told WINK News seven years ago.

Back in 2015, Lee Health attributed the long wait times to population growth.

At that time, 679,413 people lived full-time in Lee County. Now in 2022, the population has swelled to approximately 818,898. Projections say we could reach one million full-time residents by 2030.

“Definitely the increase in growth in population, we’ve seen a lot more people we think, got to the best of our ability, some of them are staying more permanently less seasonal traffic,” said Scott Nygaard, chief operating officer at Lee Health.

In 2015, Lee Health came up with a Global Patient Station (GPS) which is a 24/7 control center monitoring capacity at all four hospitals and moving patients where they have room.

It deployed in 2019 and Lee Health says it has made a difference but it will not solve the capacity issues.

“Once the flow stops inside the walls of the hospital, we can’t get people discharged, you know, everybody’s coming to the emergency room, if they need to be admitted, and we don’t have a bed available immediately, then it kind of creates a bottleneck at the front door,” Nygaard said. “The problem is just trying to triage people try to get to the sickest people first, which creates waits and delays for those who might not be quite as sick. That leads to some dissatisfaction.”

Adding to that bottleneck, community-wide many medical facilities are dealing with the same situation.

Nygaard said, right now, an estimated 140 hospital patients are waiting for beds at skilled nursing and rehab facilities. Until a room is available at those facilities, those patients stay in the hospital creating the capacity issue for new patients in need of care.

Lee Health continues to urge the public to avoid the ER, making its telehealth service free and working through staffing shortages.

Lee Health currently has 2,300 job openings. Of those, 700 openings are for registered nurses. So far, they’ve successfully recruited 68 new physicians in 2022 with more on the way.

Still, those physicians need space and Lee Health is acquiring land to build new facilities all over Southwest Florida.

Cape Coral will add a 12-bed ICU expansion to its emergency room by the fall.

Lee Health is also building a free-standing emergency department on the north side of Pine Island Road and a brand new hospital in Fort Myers, which is expected to open by 2027.

“We’re always looking at a host of data and trying to kind of forecast what do we think the future looks like, trying to look at trends in terms of where would people want to see care,” Nygaard said.

The pandemic also amplified a nationwide healthcare issue. Federal law requires emergency departments to treat everyone, whether they can pay or not. That is not the case at other urgent care facilities where those with less severe illnesses could go.

In a report to Congress in March of 2021, the Department of Health and Human Services noted several issues with emergency room utilization across the nation.

“Individuals seek care in the ED for a wide variety of reasons, including problems with access to services in other settings as well as the challenge of determining the urgency of symptoms such as chest or abdomen pain without further diagnostics. This may be part of the reason that despite a number of efforts meant to discourage use of the ED when care might be better provided elsewhere, often by a primary care provider, there is little evidence to suggest these efforts are having a sizable impact.”

“I think our whole society has kind of developed the mindset if I’m sick, you know, the access point has always been the hospital,” Nygaard said.

Now, they hope to change the mindset of the public offering telehealth, dispatch health, and home health care for people in their own homes versus the hospital hallway like the Starks experienced.

“I don’t know what the future holds. All I know for sure is we should not have gone through this,” Stark said.

As for Karen Stark, she is now resting at home. Her husband Terry said doctors diagnosed her with Stage 4 cancer after removing the tumor on her brain. A 2-time breast cancer survivor, Terry says his wife is a fighter and they hope to enjoy the time they have together.

Read the report to Congress by clicking the link or below.

Click to access ED-report-to-Congress.pdf