LAS VEGAS - Local health officials are trying to find solutions to free up more hospital beds and medical resources to combat a valley-wide emergency room crisis that is jeopardizing patient care and contributing to slower ambulance response times.
A variety of factors is swamping emergency rooms in the fast-growing Las Vegas Valley. The county's chief health officer Dr. Donald Kwalick has said, aside from increased patient load due to the summer heat, the overcrowding is often caused by people using the valley's emergency rooms for nonemergency situations.
Besides working on a long-term plan to hire and recruit more nurses, build more emergency room facilities and steer new patients to their primary care physicians, officials are seeking other solutions to ease the crowding.
One plan is to divert drunks and mental health patients outside the emergency room to more appropriate facilities.
Currently, if paramedics are called to pick up an intoxicated person, they must transport the patient to an emergency room, regardless of the person's medical condition, said Brian Rogers, director of operations for American Medical Response.
Once in the emergency room, physicians and nurses usually end up doing little more than baby-sitting until the person sobers up and can go home. That can sometime take up to 16 hours.
Several local health care professionals are working with Westcare Nevada on a proposal to allow paramedics to transport drunks to its facility rather than emergency rooms. Westcare is the largest nonprofit drug and alcohol treatment center in the state. The facility offers a nonmedical, 25-bed detoxification program that was developed in 1987 in response to crowded emergency rooms.
The proposal would allow paramedics to assess intoxicated patients and decide whether a trip to the emergency room was necessary.
Richard Mazzochi, vice president for Westcare, said the program, which helps 4,000 people annually, saves the county at least $2.4 million each year.
Health officials plan to bring the proposal before the Clark County Commission.
Officials also think expanding local mental health facilities will help the flow of emergency rooms.
Mental health patients now must be medically cleared in an emergency room before being transported to a mental health facility. If no beds are available at the state-funded facility, the patients simply wait in an emergency room bed.
Eight hospitals serve Clark County's population of 1.4 million residents, which is increasing at a rate of 5.6 percent a year and straining health care facilities.
For example, at MountainView Hospital in the northwest Las Vegas Valley, the average wait recently for an emergency-room patient was four hours. Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center's emergency room in central Las Vegas reported treating from 225 to 250 patients per day.