Hospital responds to reports patient died in ER lobby waiting to be seen
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - For months, WECT has been receiving tips about long wait times in the ER at Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center. In recent weeks, nurses from the hospital have been adding their voices to the cry for help, saying staffing shortages at the hospital are creating a dangerous situation for people in urgent need of medical care.
This week, a local media outlet reported that a patient died in the ER lobby on June 6 after waiting for hours to be seen. WECT is attempting to confirm through official channels if that is true, but several employees have told the station on background that it happened. They also noted that state investigators have been at the hospital interviewing staff about the incident.
A full day after the report first came out, the hospital disputed the details of what happened with the patient in question, but in vague terms.
“How this story has been described publicly is not how things occurred, but in respect to the family we can’t comment on a specific situation at this time. We can confirm the State has not been on site this week for any reason,” a Novant Health spokesperson said in a statement.
The full statement can be found at the end of this story.
The report stated the woman died in the lobby on June 6, the same day the hospital sent out a mass casualty alert because all five emergency departments were at surge capacity. Hospital officials wanted all staff not currently on shift to report to their respective emergency departments immediately.
Two days after the initial news report aired, the hospital further disputed the patient death claim, stating no one had died in the ER lobby as reported, and no state investigators had been on campus interviewing staff about it.
Reporting on staffing issues and long wait times at the hospital has been difficult. Although many people have reached out to WECT about the problem over the last several months, hospital employees are scared to talk on the record for fear of losing their jobs. New Hanover Regional Medical Center is the area’s largest employer, and there are no competing hospitals here where these employees might seek employment if they were to be terminated for speaking out.
“[Hospital administrators] have made it very clear that you do not post on social media, you do not talk to anybody, zero tolerance,” one NHRMC Emergency Room Nurse told WECT Wednesday while discussing what many consider to be a dire situation at the hospital. “Nobody is going to want their name used, nobody is going to want to go on record.”
The nurse said the problem is not necessarily a shortage of beds at the hospital, but a shortage of nurses to staff those beds. She said entire halls in the hospital had been blocked off for use because of staffing shortages.
She said at any given time recently, 70 of the roughly 100 beds at the 17th Street campus’s ER were being tied up by people being admitted to the hospital for inpatient care and waiting for a room. This backlog in the ER has prevented people coming in with typical Emergency Room issues from being taken back to be seen because there are no available beds. WECT is told, and some employees at the station have experienced firsthand, wait times of six to seven hours have been seen in the 17th Street ER.
ER staff who have contacted the station say the overload has created a dangerous situation. They say some nurses are refusing to clock in, knowing they will be assigned nine patients when a typical patient load is closer to six. Nurses say such a high patient load makes it impossible for them to provide adequate care.
“The increased risk of jeopardizing my nursing license due to unsafe nurse-patient ratios, as well as having the feeling of complete defeat and exhaustion following every single shift,” another nurse told WECT of why she declined a full-time position at the hospital. “I told the HR manager, it is the feeling that I can’t do or be enough for these patients and their families. It’s the constant feeling of anxiety after I have left work wondering if I did everything I could to help the patients. It’s getting yelled at by both patients and their families for not being prompt enough with my attention to their needs of care. It’s trying to monitor a patient with critical vitals while 3 other patients lay in their own excrement waiting for a nurse or nurse’s aid to offer them basic hygiene.”
WECT is told other patients’ health has suffered because of the delays.
“We have recently lost several patients who have been waiting DAYS in inpatient holding for a bed only to decompensate and need intensive care and die,” a third nurse told our station. “I used to be proud to work for this hospital but now I worry for my own license and the safety of our patients.”
Burnout from COVID 19 drove a lot of nurses away from the field. Many of those who stayed in nursing took positions outside of the ER to lessen their stress levels. The hospital recently confirmed it is moving away from its heavy reliance on travel nurses, who are typically paid significantly more than full-time nurses, but can help fill open positions on a temporary basis. But ER nurses at NHRMC think that regardless of the cost, for the time being, the hospital should hire more travel nurses, because the current shortage is creating a public safety issue.
“Patients are in the ER being told that they are being admitted and then not being to a room for days,” Angie Gore recently told us of her recent experience at the hospital. “My stepmom is there now and was told yesterday she is being admitted. I spoke to admissions and [a] patient advocate. They say there’s no rooms. Spoke with a nurse and she says [they are] short-staffed. I think the public has a right to know. So that they can go elsewhere. It is horrible to see the amount of people line up in the corridors of the ER. I will say the nurses are so nice and caring. But the administration just doesn’t seem to get it.”
The number of people moving to Southeastern North Carolina, the seasonal population surge with people coming to the beach for vacation, and the lack of competition from competing hospitals are all likely contributing to the problem.
WECT has submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, trying to confirm that there is an open investigation at the hospital.
Here is the hospital’s statement in full:
How this story has been described publicly is not how things occurred, but in respect to the family we can’t comment on a specific situation at this time. We can confirm the State has not been on site this week for any reason.
We fully appreciate everyone’s desire to get medical care and understand time is important. However, like other hospitals throughout the country, we still are experiencing a healthcare crisis – one that stems from a strained and overwhelmed system dealing with staffing shortages in nearly all areas of care. This, in turn, has created an environment where longer than usual wait times can occur.
This isn’t something Novant Health is dealing with exclusively, but we are doing what we can to help remedy and improve the situation. This includes taking steps to encourage the community to seek care at the right place for the right medical concern.
For example, we offer five Express Care Clinics in the area, as well as a number of Primary Care provider locations. Additionally, we also offer on-demand virtual care options where individuals can connect with someone via video 24/7. All of these are good first options for someone who needs care for a non-emergency issue.
Our emergency department, however, is where we strive to have the staff and resources available to care for individuals with the most urgent and serious needs, like severe trauma, shortness of breath, chest pains, strokes or other life-threatening conditions.
Rest assured, our team members are working as hard and as fast as they can every day to make sure everyone is provided the care and attention they deserve. However, before going to the emergency department for non-emergency care, we encourage people to pause and make sure they are going to the right place for the right care. By doing this, the public can help us help them – and others – in a more timely manner.
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