At UI Hospital, more patients are leaving the ER without being seen

Iowa's COVID-19 immunity bill is not about keeping health care workers on the job. (Photo by South Agency/Getty Images)

An increasing number of patients are leaving the emergency department at the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics without being seen by a doctor.

Hospital CEO Suresh Gunasekaran, during a presentation to the Iowa Board of Regents on Wednesday, said the hospital is experiencing an increase in sicker patients being transferred to the Iowa City hospital. That is resulting in longer stays and lesser bed availability.

For the month of August, 20% of patients who visited the UI emergency department left without being seen, Gunasekaran said. The majority of those were people seeking help with behavioral health issues, Gunasekaran said.

“That has never happened,” Gunasekaran said.

A “bad day” prior to COVID-19 would have been 7% to 10% of patients leaving the emergency department without being seen, Gunasekaran said.

Earlier this year, hospitals and doctors’ offices delayed seeing patients due to personal protective equipment shortages and a proclamation by Gov. Kim Reynolds that delayed elective surgeries.

There was a three-month delay for some patients who would have seen a doctor, resulting in some of them facing more severe medical conditions.

Particularly in rural areas, some hospitals may lack the resources and equipment to properly care for sicker patients. While some rural Iowa hospitals only transferred one patient a month prior to the pandemic, now they’re sending eight, Gunasekaran said.

Transfers are primarily coming from the eastern Iowa area, though some are also coming from Des Moines, Gunasekaran said. The hospital is also accepting all COVID-19 patient transfers.

While the number of inpatient transfers are at nearly the same level as prior to the pandemic, the acuity of the patients has increased by 6% according to Gunasekaran. Emergency room transfers to the hospital have also increased by 4%.

“I think a lot of chronic diseases didn’t get managed as well as they could and they progressed to a different state,” Gunasekaran said.

Gunasekaran said the hospital plans on communicating with medical facilities around the state to better handle transfers. It also plans on discharging patients more quickly and getting them back to their hometowns.

“If we did this, there would be more bed capacity as well,” Gunasekaran said.

Linh Ta
Reporter Linh Ta comes to Iowa Capital Dispatch from the Des Moines Register, where she covered trending news, public safety and the suburbs. Most recently, she has covered retail business and followed both national and local trends to provide insight about the issues that matter the most to Iowans. Beyond traditional journalism, Ta has worked as a speech coach with the Des Moines Storytellers Project with the goal of sharing the diverse perspectives of Iowans from all walks of life. She is the 2019 winner of the Young Iowa Journalist Award and the winner of an Iowa Broadcast News Award. Email her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @linhmaita.