Local hospitals hurt by abuse of the emergency room system

Emergency rooms are a part of the health care system and are required by federal law to provide care to all people, whether they can pay or not.

The problem is that many patients could be helped at other places, so that ER doctors could concentrate on those who really need help.

And it is a problem right here in Michiana.

Every day is a busy day in St. Joe Medical Center's ER, with a staff of 100 doctors, nurses, and technicians working around the clock.

But that staff is stretched thin.

Dr. Tom Sweeney says nearly half the beds are filled with the elderly, who often come in for the wrong reasons.

"The expectation is, ‘I have belly pain. I’m gonna have the answer now, not gonna do an outpatient test and follow up.’ You want the answer now," Sweeney explains.

And Sweeney has seen his share of abuse of the system. He once heard from someone who called an ambulance for a sore toe.

"They use it for a transportation source or they try to beat the system. They figure if they come in by ambulance they'll be seen faster. And then they come in the waiting room."

They wait because St. Joe -- like most hospitals -- triages their patients. That means those in the worst shape are treated first.

ER Director Gregor Staniszewski says the underinsured and uninsured often think the emergency room is their only solution.

"It's a huge, huge problem. We are seeing a lot of patients who are either underinsured or do not have a provider," he explains.

Staniszewski says there are doctors in Michiana willing to treat the uninsured, and they can always go to the Med Center's Family Practice Residency Clinic.

"We have a family practice clinic here in our hospital with residents, and they are looking for patients. They could see patients very easily with a short notification."

It would free up ER doctors for true emergencies, like those that crop up every Notre Dame Saturday.

"In a typical Notre Dame Stadium, we’re going to have at least one heart attack at the game. There's always gonna be at least a couple diabetic reactions. There's always going to be a seizure, there's always going to be…" says Sweeney. "It's just life."

Lives ER doctors want the time to save.

If you want information about seeing a doctor at the Family Practice Residency Clinic, you can call the hospital at 237-7111.

St. Joe Med Center also wants to remind people that the emergency room at their Mishawaka hospital is still open.


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