Hospitals nationwide feel space crunch due to high patient usage

by Robin Huiras

Hospitals throughout the Twin Cities and the nation are experiencing patient occupancy well above normal standards, with most operating at 80 percent capacity.
Medical officials find themselves at a loss to explain the forces behind the high rates of occupancy, but cite the flu epidemic and changes in hospital regulations as two of a number of possible sources.
Fairview-University Medical Center has the capacity to admit 375 patients; on Tuesday 347 of the beds were occupied.
“There is no (one) real reason why hospital usage may be up,” said Cameron Potts, communication specialist for Minnesota Hospital and Health Care Partnership. “It’s a matter of a number of factors coming together.”
Joanne Disch, vice president for patient and family services at Fairview-University Medical Center, said a reason for the high numbers is an increase in respiratory infections and influenza this time of year, especially this year, because the flu is a more aggressive virus.
A second component is that some government regulations have changed, Disch said. The regulations are more restrictive and in some cases where patients could have left the hospital and go elsewhere for less-intensive treatment and therapy, they now stay at the hospital.
At the University level, the number of patients receiving and waiting for transplants has increased. These numbers reflect new therapies developed at the University.
Pat Motherway, communication representative for Regions Hospital in St. Paul, said Regions has been operating at 70 to 85 percent capacity levels for the past few years. This is due in part to Regions being a charity hospital and trauma center.
“February has been the busiest month we’ve had in four years,” said Gloria O’Connell, spokeswoman for Abbott Northwestern. There is no one reason, she said. People are using hospitals more and people are getting older, O’Connell added.
Hennepin County Medical Center encompasses a great number of specialties, said Virginia Shephard, media relations representative. Additionally, HCMC is the area’s only level-one trauma center, which could explain the increase in patients.
Potts said the fact that unemployment rates are down and people can use health care plans offered by their employers might contribute to the high levels of occupancy. Additionally, many people needing surgery might elect to have an operation at this time of year.
Whatever the reasons, area hospitals are taking strides to maintain quality care.
To combat the problem locally, Disch said Fairview-University is trying to recruit new staff and offering incentives to current staff to pick up extra shifts. Administration is also working with physicians to discharge patients in a timely manner.
“I do think we will continue to see hospitals that are very busy,” Disch said. But, she added, any number of factors can affect the amount of in-patients at a hospital, as they are dynamic and the numbers change every day.