Some years ago when I first started in practice, a very large hospital in our area was having trouble getting patients rapidly admitted from the ER to the floors. This resulted in a tremendous backlog of patients and extreme ER overcrowding. This naturally increased patient wait times and directly impacted the health of those coming to the ER. So, naturally, the hospital system formed a committee and hired consultants. They looked at every single variable: time to laboratory, time to X-ray, nursing changeover, bed request time and on and on and on. Do you know what they found? The roadblock in the movement of patients through this major medical system was housekeeping. Think about that. Housekeepers, traditionally the lowest paid and least-skilled division of employment of the hospital, were responsible for the movement and throughput of patients more than any other factor.
If the rooms on the floor were not cleaned fast enough, then no patients could move from the ER to the floor, and no patients from the waiting room to the ER. ER wait times rose and patient care suffered. Housekeepers handcuffed the entire system, and not because they were lazy. The regulations, protocols and procedures put into place to clean a room are so extensive that rapid room turnover was next to impossible with the current staffing model. That stuck with me. What is the rate-limiting step in a mass casualty scenario or massive patient influx that would handcuff us? Where will all the preparedness collapse? What is the leaking O-ring? What am I afraid will fail?Based on this, his fear is that there simply won't be enough staff showing up to do their work at the hospitals:
Now imagine that huge numbers of hospital staff – from doctors to housekeepers, from food services to registration, from security and parking to transportation will decide not show up. They will call in sick or simply just say: “No, I’m not coming to work today.” In just a few days, human waste, debris, soiled linens, the sick, the dying and the bodies will pile up. We will be overwhelmed and unable to offer much in the way of assistance because the labor-intensive protocols that allow us to safely care for even one patient are just too exhausting. These procedures are barely repeatable more than once or twice of day, and fraught with so many steps and potential for mistake that it becomes too physically and emotionally taxing for the staff to do … so they simply wont show up.
And I am not sure I will, either.
I love emergency medicine. I love helping people and saving lives and I think I’m pretty good at it, but I am also a person and I have a wife and three children that I love and want to see grow up. I also am keenly aware that not a damn thing I do will have any real impact on the survivability of a patient with either the Spanish flu or Ebola. Fluids, rest and prayer is about all there is to offer. There is an old adage that says a hospital is no place for a sick person. I think whoever first said that had Spanish flu and Ebola in mind.