Local doctors say nursing shortage causing hospital backups, diverting patients

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INDIANAPOLIS – Local doctors are calling attention to a staffing shortage that is causing backups at area hospitals and forcing some patients to be diverted to alternate facilities.

Indianapolis Pediatric E.R. Physician Mercy Hylton says the problem came to a head yesterday when all Indianapolis-area hospitals were on diversion, which means they were advising EMS and ambulance crews to divert patients elsewhere. Hylton says emergency rooms are overflowing with patients in every room and lining hallways and admitted patients are waiting hours and days to get a room in the hospital.

“EMS is responding to calls and trying to find places to take patients,” Dr. Hylton said.

Officials at Indianapolis EMS confirm at least 10 Indianapolis-area hospitals were on diversion at some point on Monday. They include Methodist, Eskenazi, Community North, St. Vincent Carmel, I.U. North, St. Vincent Indianapolis, Roudebush V.A. Medical Center, Community South, Franciscan Health Indianapolis, and Johnson Memorial Health.

While diversion is common at individual facilities at any given time, Indianapolis EMS Director, Dr. Dan O’Donnell says having all area hospitals on diversion in the same day is not. The situation prompted IEMS to activate their alternate transportation protocol, which involves directing local ambulances similar to an air traffic controller.

“We will start going to different hospitals, changing a little bit of where we are transporting patients to help them handle the surge that they’re experiencing,” O’Donnell said.

Dr. David Dunkle, President and CEO of Johnson Memorial Health said Johnson Memorial Hospital had to transport a cardiac patient more than 80 miles from Franklin to Ball Memorial Hospital because two Indianapolis-area hospitals couldn’t take the patient.

“And it just happened that the closest hospital with the level of care this patient needed last night was in Muncie,” Dr. Dunkle said.

Dr. Hylton says the reason hospitals are so overwhelmed is not because of rising COVID-19 cases or not enough beds, but because of a shortage of nurses to care for incoming patients.

“There is a severe shortage of bedside nurses and this is throughout the country and this is long-standing,” she said.

Dunkle agrees that a shortage of nurses is leading to longer wait times, longer hospital stays, and longer ambulance rides.

“It’s not that we don’t have enough beds for patients, it’s that we don’t have enough nurses to staff those beds,” Dunkle said.

“It’s nothing new and it’s nothing that COVID created, but it’s something that COVID uncovered more fully than ever before,” Hylton said.

Hylton says many nurses are leaving hospitals to become nursing practitioners or follow other career paths in order to find better working conditions.

“Nurses are getting burned out by being overworked, being asked to do more with less, having more patients per nurse, not getting a break for 12 hours during a shift,” she said.

“Health care workers, they step up,” Dunkle said. “They work longer hours, they work weekends, they work holidays. But one person can only work so much.”

There is also concern about hospitals losing valuable years of experience with each nurse that walks out the door.

Hylton and Dunkle agree that hospital systems need to have serious conversations about efforts to increase staffing levels in order to begin reversing the current trend.

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