ANNAPOLIS – With flu season approaching, the state emergency medical system is expecting an increased use of its high-tech tracking method to alleviate hospital overcrowding.
With just a few mouse clicks and an Internet connection, doctors or the public can check a 24-hour online bed tracking system that emergency personnel use to determine whether there’s room in a Maryland hospital for a patient.
The County Hospital Alert Tracking System uses six different color codes to alert emergency medical personnel, hospitals, physicians and the public of a hospital’s current patient load.
The system began in the early 1990s and went online in 2000. Emergency personnel can reroute patients if a hospital’s emergency room is overcrowded or experiencing a “mini-disaster,” which includes a blackout, gas leak or bomb scare.
“It is set up for the emergency medical services, which includes hospital emergency services,” said Lisa Myers, director of program development for the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems.
EMS providers call the system to determine the best facility for the patient, although hospitals cannot turn away critically-ill patients, no matter what the hospital’s status. The system can help the general public make informed decisions about which hospital to visit, but is specifically for EMS since hospitals cannot turn away patients who arrive on their own.
The system works until it gets so busy that nearly every hospital is on yellow alert, said the emergency medical institute. The number of yellow alerts typically goes up during flu season, which usually peaks in mid-to-late January.
“If several hospitals are on yellow alert, the EMS provider is supposed to go to the next closest facility,” said Myers. “So if both hospitals are on yellow alert, there’s nowhere different to take the patient.”
Friday afternoon, a look at the site showed three hospitals in Region III (Baltimore City and county, Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties) in a yellow alert, signaling an overcrowded emergency room. During flu season, nearly all hospitals have been in yellow alerts, system spokesmen have said.
Staff shortages, shortened physician hours and the unraveling of the mental health system has contributed to a 5 percent increase in emergency room visits, said the state hospital association.
“The EMS routing system helps some, but the emergency rooms in urban areas are routinely overcrowded . . . and it is more common during the winter months,” said Nancy Fiedler, spokeswoman for the Maryland Hospital Association.
Emergency room wait times have grown in the past year, said the state hospital association.
“If the public has other alternatives, they should use that . . . go to their physician, let the flu run its course,” Fiedler
said. The state health department is encouraging people to get flu vaccinations and said people can get the shot as late as December. In the past, the state has had problems with flu inoculation supplies, but this year, there are plenty of vaccines.
“We’re trying to encourage flu shots,” said Fiedler, “And discourage inappropriate use of the emergency room.”
The tracking system can be viewed at www.miemss.org/Home.htm by clicking on “Tracking System (CHATS).”