Every Minute Counts

Every Minute Counts

 Lakeland Regional Health Works to Make Sure People Don’t Delay Care Over COVID-19 Fears

By PAUL CATALA 

As coronavirus fears have grown throughout the nation, it has become clear there is a different trend starting, and it brings with it some dangers of its own. By late March, physicians and nurses in hospital rooms and emergency wards across the country reported noticing less patients coming through their doors.

Some hospitals were seeing patient traffic drop as much as 50 percent from March 2019, and a similar pattern was occurring at Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center (LRH), which has the nation’s busiest ER.

A national poll by American College of Emergency Physicians in mid-April showed 39 percent of respondents said they were “very concerned” about getting COVID-19 at the hospital if admitted for emergency care. 

However, Dr. Timothy Regan, LRH’s chief medical officer, says he and the LRH staff are going “above and beyond” to maintain a safe and sterile hospital to help alleviate those concerns.

LRH has more than 600 credentialed providers on the medical staff with hospital admitting privileges, according to Jennifer Audette, director of public relations and communications. Throughout the entire health system, which includes outpatient locations as well as the medical center, Lakeland Regional Health employs 5,400 team members.

Regan, who began working as an LRH emergency room physician in 2005, says he and his staff saw their first coronavirus patient March 15, two weeks after patients in a Lakeland nursing facility began having COVID-19 symptoms, which so far ended up being the bulk of admissions for coronavirus. 

Regan says since late April, he and ER doctors began noticing a decrease in patients in the ER. He said volumes dropped off at least 50 percent in the last two weeks of March and into April. 

“When you come to work every day and say to yourself, ‘I wonder where all the patients are?’ clearly, this virus has made people anxious about just leaving their houses in general,” says Regan. “We were getting patients who were very, very sick who had stayed at home with mild symptoms that gradually got worse.”

Regan says he had even seen deaths and patients who became gravely ill after putting off care at the hospital.

“We were seeing more and more patients or the spouse or loved ones, they just didn’t want to come to the hospital; they were afraid of getting the coronavirus. We put it together people were delaying urgent and emergent conditions out of fear of getting coronavirus,” he says.

Regan says people were putting off coming in for surgical emergencies, heart attacks, strokes, infections, and other illnesses because of that fear. He said events that would’ve been easy to cure caused people to end up in the Intensive Care Unit.

Throughout the nation, 911 call volumes for strokes and heart attacks declined in March through early April, according to data collected by ESO, a software company used by emergency medical service agencies.

Across the U.S., other doctors say the dropoff in emergency room admissions has been very noticeable. The prevailing fear is that patients will delay care for so long that they will be sicker or have more serious injuries when they finally get to an ER.  

“We had a lot of sad cases. We’ve really tried to convey to the community that we are a safe place to come to,” Regan says, adding that care is taken to separate patients who have and haven’t been exposed to COVID-19.

Regan says LRH has 864 beds, 133 of those in the ER, which sees about 600 to 650 patients per day during the summer. Out of 864 beds, during the summer, generally about 750 beds are full. 

Regan says in the ER, in March-April, doctors were seeing about 300 patients rather than the average of 600. He says once restrictions on elective surgeries were removed, patient numbers went up and by June 11, 777 patients were hospitalized. 

“As people became less scared to leave their house, we had more people coming to the emergency departments. That’s a message that we’ve really tried to get to the community. You know, it’s important to seek treatment,” he adds. “We take this very seriously.” 

Regan says other precautions LRH has taken to alleviate coronavirus concerns include collaboration with engineers on the air-conditioning systems to ensure people weren’t “breathing the same air.” 

LRH includes a dozen outpatient locations, and Audette says all preventive practices apply to all preventive care visits at those medical offices. 

As volumes decreased, Regan says the hospital has worked hard to get the word out about what LRH staff has been doing to keep patients separate and safe.

“But still the average person who reads the paper or watches TV, it’s hard not to be afraid of everything that’s going on with this,” he states.

Regan says the bottom line for those concerned about contracting COVID-19 from a visit to LRH is that there are different options for getting care— including an ER in two separate departments, a telehealth service for phone screenings, and doctor practices and consultations with an iPad.

“We are looking over every way possible to make sure the community is cared for, not only for COVID-19, but for non-COVID-19 medical issues,” he says.

For call-ahead services to avoid the waiting room at LRH, call 863-687-1414.