Hospital Planning and Flu Patients

Currently the hospitals of Chicago, as well as other cities in Illinois, are seeing such a large amount of flu patients coming in that some are among the 11 hospitals in Illinois that will only handle patients with life-threatening illnesses. This is such a huge problem that my mother saw a story about it on the evening news on CBS 58 in Milwaukee.

What interested me in the Tribune‘s article on the problem was a quote from an emergency department doctor at Northwestern Memorial:

Zich estimated that more than 35 patients with flu-like symptoms passed through the emergency department’s waiting room while Northwestern Memorial was on bypass Monday night.


The majority of those ER visitors did not require medical attention, he said.


“The flu in and of itself is not a reason to come to the emergency department,” Zich said, noting that an ER visit is “not necessary” unless the flu is coupled with difficulty breathing or another serious illness, such as heart disease.

For the longest time, people have been going to ERs for minor problems. I tend to not be this type of person because of how my mother raised me. This has been speculated to be the result of people not having a primary care doctor, although I’d also point out that urgent care clinics seeming to be a relatively new thing–and incredibly scarce in Chicago as I discussed in an op-ed for Gapers Block–people might tend to go to Emergency Rooms on weekends since most doctors don’t have appointments on the weekends.

There are some hospitals in Chicago that are trying to curb the occurrences of people coming in to the ER for problems that don’t really require attention at that high of a level. According to a spokesman at Rush University that I spoke with in the spring for an article I was writing, that hospital wants to help connect patients with primary care doctors in the patient’s area. University of Chicago Medical Center has a well-intentioned program that directs patients who come into the ER for minor problems to primary care clinics. (I say well-intentioned because the program has been accused of resulting in alleged patient dumping by University of Chicago Medical Center.)

In many ways it makes sense that ERs are doing this. I can see though that a potential problem with flu patients coming in–especially since this flu strain sounds to be a bit harsh–is that in some cases flu should be taken very seriously. But in most cases, a person should stay home and wait for the bug to pass. Last February, I went to the ER at Northwestern Memorial for a shoulder injury and found that the ER was packed. Based on what I was hearing, most of the patients who were there with masks on their faces had been waiting for five hours to be seen. In addition to going to the ER being very costly, you’re going to have to wait a very long time.

However the question that I have after reading about this is if John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County is being horribly affected by this. When I visited Stroger Hospital to write about the Cook County Health and Hospital System for Gapers Block, I learned that the hospital divided up the Emergency Department into three different sections and triages the patients with problems like the flu separately from other patients. That hospital acknowledged that people will come to an ER for problems that can be treated elsewhere and figured out a way to help streamline and find a more efficient way to run an ER with this occurring.

It is inevitable that people will go to the ER for non-life threatening conditions or conditions that aren’t serious like a major injury. Something that Chicago hospitals might want to look at after this flu outbreak is how to help make an Emergency Department run more efficiently as people come in for things like the flu.