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Small hospitals struggle to transfer patients in critical need

Large hospitals too jammed to take all transfers
Posted at 7:54 PM, Sep 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-20 22:54:17-04

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — Patients are dying waiting for transfers from small hospitals to larger ones that might have had a better chance to save their lives. Small, rural hospitals say short staff and jammed hospitals are keeping patients from transferring to specialized care that smaller hospitals were never meant to deliver.

The health system depends on the assumption that patients can transfer to large hospitals if they need care small facilities can’t provide.

But COVID destroyed those assumptions. Stephen Harris leads Santa Cruz Valley Regional Hospital in Green Valley. He says 85% of Green Valley residents have had COVID vaccinations but when other ailments threaten their lives, it’s hard to transfer them to larger hospitals jammed with COVID patients.

He says Monday a woman needed open heart surgery. She couldn’t get a transfer, and died.

“Gentlemen last night passed away in our ER, unable to transfer him, in heart failure. And we had a lady Sunday that passed away, unable to transfer her, that needed very complicated abdominal surgery with multiple perforations, unable to transfer.”

Harris doesn’t blame the other hospitals. He knows they don’t have enough nurses. He’d like to see National Guard nurses sent to help hospitals, or retired nurses come back to work.

At the Copper Queen Hospital in Bisbee, Chief of Staff Doctor Heidi Lodge says several patients died there before they could transfer to a larger hospital that might have saved them. Doctor Lodge says the state health department has a special phone number called the surge line that helps hospitals find transfer beds for COVID patients but it does not help find beds for patients critically ill with something else.

“Someone comes in with a stroke or a heart attack or major trauma. We have to do the calling around, we're sitting there on the phone trying to find the place that can take them. And that's frustrating I know for a lot of providers if all the patients had to go through the same referral line, it would equal it out that we could get our non COVID People in our COVID people kind of the care they needed in an equal fashion.

We asked the state health department if it might expand the surge line to any patient who needs to transfer to a larger hospital. A spokesperson replied that the state is concentrating on getting more nurses.