Deadly Ambulance Diversions?

paramedic EMT ambulance AP

The first time Elmer Newman felt a sensation in his chest, he did not hesitate — he called 911.

"My heart was beating fast," said Newman. "I felt uneasy. My chest hurt. My hands tingled."

Newman suffered a heart attack and expected he would go to the closest hospital. But the University Hospital in Cleveland was full and it turned his ambulance away.

"I was in the ambulance and they were on the phone trying to find a place to have me admitted," he recalled.

Newman recovered, but the nation's emergency rooms are on the critical list because they are overflowing with patients. When an ER is full, it goes on a "diversion." In Boston, ER diversions are so common, ambulances keep track with computers, reports CBS News Correspondent Wyatt Andrews.

Diversions are partly the result of a downsized hospital system. Space for patients is limited and hospitals cannot meet the demand to place the ill and injured for treatment.

Cost cuts by insurance companies and the federal governments have lead to 15 percent fewer hospital beds in comparison to ten years ago. Today, when the emergency room is full, it is usually because the hospital upstairs is full.

Massachusetts General Hospital ER Chief Doctor Alasdair Conn says, too often, the waiting room and ER are the same.

"We have people in the waiting room with IVs going on intraveneuos antibiotic because there is no place to treat them," said Conn. "Did somebody die that shouldn't have died because of the divert problem? I wish I could answer you and say absoutely not, but I can't."

To add a twist to this confusion, under federal law, the same ER that can turn away a patient in an ambulance, has to accept a patient who walks in. So last March, Newman didn't call 911 when felt his symptoms again. He asked his wife to drive.

"I'm not going to go through the same rountine I did before," said Newman. "Let's take a chance … So, I took a chance."

Some would call this the real emergency. The 82-year-old with chest pains felt he could not risk his life calling an ambulance.


© MMII, CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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