Staffing main ER concern

Plains Regional Medical Center officials said the emergency room handles about 36,000 patients every year. (Staff photo: Marlena Hartz)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Dressed in pink scrubs, emergency room admittance officer Traci Garcia is often the first person to greet patients at the Plains Regional Medical Center.

Scanning rows of empty tan seats Tuesday in the recently renovated PRMC emergency waiting room, Garcia said the center is bucking the national trend when it comes to emergency room overcrowding.

“Sometimes we do get a little wait,” said Garcia, seated behind a computer screen, “but compared to big cities, it’s nothing.”

The number of visits to emergency departments nationwide hit a record high in 2003, according to a Center for Disease Control report, ballooning 26 percent since 1993.

According to Plains Regional Medical Center administrator Brian Bentley, the PRMC emergency department handles about 36,000 visits a year. An average emergency room visit, beginning when a patient enters the door and ending when they exit, is four hours, Bentley said, which is on par with national averages in the CDC study of emergency room care.

But at a Curry County Commission meeting, Bentley reported a surge in patient complaints, stemming from long waits in the emergency room. He said the center’s greatest challenge is one specific to rural hospitals — the recruiting of emergency room physicians and nurses.

PRMC is trying to combat the problem.

Bentley interviewed a physician from Florida on Tuesday afternoon, ending his chat with the doctor by urging a visit to the emergency department. But less than a month ago, two physicians initially interested in moving to Clovis were snatched away by New Mexican towns with mountain views, said Bentley, who describes recruiting qualified ER physicians and nurses as a constant battle.

“Every smaller town in America is bidding for the service of doctors willing to work in small towns,” said Bentley from the hallway of the recently expanded emergency room where flimsy curtains were once the only form of privacy for patients; now finding doctors and nurses to staff the vastly improved space is the biggest priority.

“Other hospitals are trying to recruit doctors from here. Historically this town did not have an effective recruiting center. We are trying to close the gap by actively recruiting physicians,” Bentley said.

The center employs 13 emergency room physicians, but Bentley would like to see more come on board to decrease overtime.

Michelle Williams, director of the emergency department, said the center has its moments of overcrowding. She said emergency department burdens nationwide have grown due to patient abuse of the system.

“Instead of using their primary care physician for a sore throat or an allergy, patients are coming into the emergency room,” Williams said, citing greater insurance coverage of emergency room visits as the impetus.

Williams reports treating many patients with common colds, sore throats, and chest and abdominal pain.
“It would make it easier for a nurse staff, if when patients come in they understand we are here to take care of the most seriously injured first,” she said.

Robert Suter, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians, disagrees. In a MarketWatch article, he said that there is little frivolous use or abuse of emergency departments. He said with an aging and increasing population more people are living with chronic health problems than in previous decades.

Bentley, who maneuvers quickly through the maze of new additions at the facility, is confident PRMC will be able to handle changing trends and new demands in emergency health care.