Hospitals Trying To Discourage ER Visits For Non-Urgent Issues

Sunday, July 1st 2007, 1:57 pm
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Three Oklahoma City hospitals are seeking a solution to a problem they say is plaguing their industry _ people with non-urgent health care issues seeking treatment in hospital emergency rooms.

One of the hospitals, Integris Southwest Medical Center, is using funds from a community grant program to pay for a case management nurse to work with needy patients and help them receive low-cost medical care while avoiding the emergency room for everything but true emergencies.

``Just educating people about what community resources are available, about preventative health and how to handle minor emergencies at home is going to be a lot of this,'' said the nurse, Mary Wilson.

Chad Borin, an emergency room physician at Southwest Medical Center, said the problem is not a new one for hospitals. Of Southwest's approximately 22,500 emergency-room patients every year, one-third are uninsured and are seeking care for everyday health issues.

Borin said doctors will see patients regardless of insurance status, but trying to keep up with a patient's condition following treatment is problematic, which can be dangerous for patients with life-threatening or chronic illnesses.

``Their prognosis might not be as good as someone who's seeing a regular doctor,'' Borin said. ``That limits their ability to manage their condition because they don't have anybody to follow up with.''

A group formed by Southwest and two other Oklahoma City hospitals, OU Medical Center and St. Anthony, found that at least 53 percent of emergency room patients in the metropolitan area would be better served by going to a doctor's office or clinic, according to St. Anthony North's executive director, Pam Troup.

``An emergency room is set up to handle emergencies, not follow you through your illnesses,'' Troup said.

She said St. Anthony loses about $11 million a year because of unpaid bills or bad debt of those who use the emergency room. Southwest writes off about $18 million a year for the same reason, said Errol Mitchell, Integris Health's vice president of financial services and chief financial officer.

At OU Medical Center, spokesman Allen Poston said about half of that hospital's emergency-room visits should have been treated in a doctor's office.

In 2006, the Oklahoma City Community Foundation began giving hospitals $50,000 grants in an attempt to help them deal with the issue, spokeswoman Cathy Nestlen said.

``It was very important that all three hospitals work together on this issue so that the population did not just move from one location to another,'' said Nancy Anthony, the foundation's executive director.