25 Investigates: Patients waiting 12+ hours to be seen at some MA hospital emergency rooms

Staffing shortages and behavioral health patient boarding contributing to long wait times

BOSTON — Too many patients and not enough staff or beds. That’s the scenario across many Massachusetts hospitals.

25 Investigates collected data from 16 hospitals across the Commonwealth and found a surge of patients seeking treatment and static staffing levels are adding pressure to already strained emergency rooms.

Several of the hospitals we contacted admit wait times are historically longer due to the pandemic.

Our team began looking into ER wait times after a viewer called our newsroom frustrated about her more than 12-hour experience at Good Samaritan’s ER.

That viewer, who lives in East Bridgewater and asked we only use her first name - Lisa - said she went to the ER at Good Samaritan in Brockton on a recent Thursday afternoon in mid-October after what she described as “sudden” bleeding.

She says the intake process was smooth, but there was little communication and progress after that.

“No one ever acknowledged there was a wait,” Lisa told investigative reporter Ted Daniel. “Some of the people that came in on an ambulance were brought or put on a stretcher, were brought into the lobby, and put in a wheelchair to wait”

Lisa added she watched more than a dozen people, including elderly patients, walk out in frustration.

“I saw people that had been there longer than me. It was pure exhaustion. It was disbelief,” she said.

25 Investigates contacted Good Samaritan about the long wait times. In an emailed statement, a hospital spokesman apologized for the experience Lisa endured, adding that they “are evaluating our procedures to ensure that similar situations will not arise in the future.” Part of the statement from Good Samaritan also reads: “…over the course of treating thousands of patients during the COVID-19 pandemic; isolated, non-representative incidents can occur including longer than normal ER wait times.”

Of the 16 hospitals our team contacted, 10 responded. We asked each of them for the average wait time in their ER this year compared to last year and reasons behind the longer waits. We also asked what steps the hospital was taking to address the problem.

Tufts referred us to the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association (MHA) for answers but said the hospital was dealing with a “statewide surge in volume.”

A spokeswoman for all Beth Israel Lahey Health (BILH)-affiliated hospitals in Massachusetts, including Beverly Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess and Lahey Hospital said “wait times are generally longer than they have been historically.” One reason BILH offered for the longer wait times was “the effects of patients seeking care that has become emergent after delaying care during the height of the pandemic.”

Lowell General notes they have seen a “high level of pressure” in their ERs. A spokesman adds they “don’t keep ‘average wait time’ data” and instead “keep ‘door to bed’ times, but it’s a misleading statistic because someone with a life-threatening condition is going to get access to a bed faster than someone who has less acute symptoms.”

A statewide shortage of Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds is part of the problem at UMass Memorial in Worcester. The facility is the only Level 1 Trauma Center in Central Massachusetts and as a result, the hospital says, it must prioritize adult and pediatric trauma patients from as far away as Athol and Winchendon and New Hampshire.

“It’s been a struggle with space to care for all the people that are here,” said Norm Soucie, chief of UMass’s Emergency Medical Services (EMS). “It’s also a strain on the staff because the staff numbers are static even though the patient volume has increased.”

A 25 Investigates camera was recently allowed into UMass ER to see the problem firsthand. While we were there a Lifeflight helicopter took a COVID patient to a hospital in Hartford because that was the closest ICU bed available.

Compounding the bed shortage problem at UMass is the growing number of mental health patients that often end up staying in the ER for weeks or months because there is no space available for them at a psychiatric facility, according to Ann Wunder, who oversees the emergency department at UMass Memorial.

“This is a statewide problem. It’s actually a national problem and we’re just really trying to take care of the patients the best we can,” said Wunder.

UMass says two other factors are also contributing to their long wait times - a nurses’ strike down the street at St. Vincent’s which has led to a reduction of services and beds in the city, and more patients who rely on the ER as their primary source of healthcare.

“Most people wait so long to come to the emergency department because they do not have a health care provider, that by the time they get to us, they’re extremely ill,” she said.

In addition to walk-in patients, UMass provides ambulances for all of Worcester and Shrewsbury. Their call center receives about 150 calls a day for ambulances.

25 Investigates rode along with them for part of a shift on a recent November afternoon. On the day of our visit, we saw everything from a nursing home resident in cardiac arrest to an intoxicated individual in distress and a sick person outside a diner in need of medical assistance.

To reduce wait times and improve care, UMass Memorial says it launched a number of initiatives, including a mobile healthcare service that allows doctors to virtually visit patients at their homes.

Many of the hospitals we contacted also tell 25 Investigates reducing ER wait times is a top priority.

A Newton-Wellesley Hospital spokeswoman said the Mass General Brigham health system, which Newton-Wellesley is a part of, has created a task force dedicated to addressing capacity issues across their network. The spokeswoman added that between Oct 21 and 28, the average time for “Arrival to First Provider Contact is 62 minutes; up 4 minutes from same time last year.”

According to a Mass General Hospital spokesman, the “average ED door-to-provider time is 48 minutes per patient, which is up 18 minutes from last September.” But the hospital is seeking to address ER wait times by “closely reviewing turnaround times to understand delays,” “implementing surge strategies 7 days a week to maximize the use of inpatient capacity,” and “implementing nursing protocols in Triage,” he added. MGH is also part of the Mass General Brigham system.

Lowell General said they “don’t keep ‘average wait time’ data” but the facility is aware of the long wait times and is working to address them. To that end, Lowell General says it opened three urgent care facilities in the past eight years and plans to open a behavioral health unit.

25 Investigates contacted the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association (MHA) about the long wait times at the state’s emergency rooms. Its president, Steve Walsh, said in a statement:

“Like healthcare organizations across the country, Massachusetts hospitals are facing a series of immense pressures brought on by the pandemic. In addition to combating COVID-19, providers are also navigating a significant workforce shortage, a behavioral health boarding crisis, and an influx of patients who deferred care over the past 20 months. Even in the midst of these challenges, our healthcare system remains nimble and continues to provide safe, high-quality to every patient in need. Hospitals are keeping their communities updated on wait times and care service availability, just as they have throughout the pandemic. Members of the general public can help by getting vaccinated for both COVID-19 and the flu, seeking care when they need it, and visiting their doctor or local urgent care when they are not experiencing an emergency.”

Lisa, the East Bridgewater resident who contacted 25 Investigates about her experience at Good Samaritan’s ER, ended up being admitted after more than 12 hours of waiting. She says the whole ordeal has left her feeling hesitant about going back to any ER.

“In the future, I’m going to have to gauge how serious I feel, what can I tolerate,” she said. “I can’t predict what’s going to happen in the ER.”

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