By Jon O’Connell and Denise Allabaugh, Times-Shamrock Newspapers
Every minute counts in a medical emergency, so Geisinger Health System wants to shorten the route to acute care for the southern Wyoming Valley.
Geisinger South Wilkes-Barre on Church Street will revive its emergency department, providing closer access to care from places like Ashley, Hanover Township and Nanticoke, hospital officials say.
As it stands now, people in those areas must drive to Wilkes-Barre General Hospital, which is owned by Commonwealth Health, or Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center in Plains Township.
Hospital officials say one-fourth of patients who show up at Geisinger Wyoming Valley’s emergency department travel from the South Wilkes-Barre hospital neighborhood and beyond.
“If you’re living in Nanticoke or Plymouth, you have to drive now probably a good 25 minutes to get to any of the closest emergency rooms if you’re seriously ill,” said Dr. Anthony Aquilina, Geisinger Northeast’s regional president.
The emergency room’s return, to be completed next year, is one of two resurrections the health system has in the works.
Geisinger Community Medical Center in Scranton will restore maternity care that had been shut down a decade ago, when its former owners got out of the baby business and made Moses Taylor Hospital Lackawanna County’s only baby-delivering hospital.
Geisinger’s $5 million emergency department restoration in South Wilkes-Barre could seem counterintuitive at a time when providers and policymakers alike are steering patients with lesser injuries or illnesses toward more cost-effective urgent care clinics or their own family doctors.
DEMAND FOR SERVICE
But Aquilina says the new emergency room is the health system’s response to demand.
“We certainly would want to see patients taken care of in the most appropriate place, and an emergency room is not the most appropriate place for minor illnesses,” he said. “But when you’re very seriously ill, minutes matter. Bringing this back to this community is really a result of demand.”
A children’s urgent care clinic at the hospital will remain intact, and health system officials are planning two new Careworks Urgent Care clinics in Wilkes-Barre and Kingston to address less serious patient needs.
The emergency department will include nine to 12 beds.
Geisinger South Wilkes-Barre will not be designated a trauma center, so more serious cases still must go to Geisinger Wyoming Valley or Wilkes-Barre General Hospital.
“The care will be delivered at Geisinger Wyoming Valley, but if they come here first, we’ll stabilize them and get them to Geisinger Wyoming Valley,” Aquilina said.
Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center has been extremely busy since emergency care was centralized there and it became a Level II trauma center in 2008, said Dr. Keith Vrabec, an emergency medicine physician at Geisinger Wyoming Valley who formerly worked at Geisinger South Wilkes-Barre.
Earlier this month, Wilkes-Barre General Hospital also became a Level II trauma center. Accredited trauma centers treat the most serious life-threatening and disabling injuries.
“It’s at the point where the community requires another emergency department and Geisinger recognizes this,” Vrabec said.
In addition to the new emergency room, Geisinger will add 13 renovated medical/surgical units with private inpatient rooms, expanded laboratory services and full-service radiology.
Geisinger South Wilkes-Barre has not had an emergency department for years.
The campus had housed an emergency department when it was Mercy Hospital.
Geisinger bought the former Mercy Hospital in Wilkes-Barre in 2005 from the struggling Cincinnati-based Catholic Healthcare Partners.
Four years later, it slashed services and staff numbers as the growing health system sought to consolidate service lines in light of declining patient volume.
The emergency department remained open at Geisinger South Wilkes-Barre until 2009 when it became an adult urgent care center.
“The re-opening of a state-of-the-art, refurbished emergency department represents another critical step towards a very bright future for GSWB,” said Geisinger Northeast’s Chief Administrative Officer Ron Beer. “The South Wilkes-Barre location will be more convenient for our patients by providing emergency care where they live and work while reducing wait time for patients at both of our Wilkes-Barre emergency departments.”
Geisinger officials are just starting the process of building out the operational plan and it has not been determined how many employees the reopened emergency department in South Wilkes-Barre will have, Beer said.
“A lot of it will be predicated on volume,” he said. “We’ll make some predictions based on what we expect. Then, that will fluctuate based on not only the number of people who come to us, but also the acuity and severity of illnesses and things of that nature.”
Aquilina and Beer expect several employees who formerly worked in the emergency department in South Wilkes-Barre to be interested in returning.
“This facility had a connection to this community and people who were former Mercy employees who stayed with our system and who have gone to other systems have a connection to this organization and a connection to this community. They are very proud of that heritage and they’re proud to work here and proud to be part of this community,” Beer said. “I have no doubt when we post these positions, we’ll have a lot of internal excitement about it.”
The significant increase in emergency department patient volume is a trend hospitals throughout the nation are facing.
Vrabec said Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center and Wilkes-Barre General Hospital are “both in the same boat” and both are extremely busy.
“Geisinger recognized the need to have another place in that community,” Vrabec said. “It’s one of those situations where the people there will have better access than going to Wilkes-Barre General Hospital or all the way to Geisinger Wyoming Valley. They could be there in five minutes as opposed to 15 or 20 minutes and that makes a difference in their lives.”
Emergency room use was supposed to subside after the Affordable Care Act made health insurance accessible to more people, but studies show it has either hardly moved and in some cases increased. That’s in part because the emergency room remains the front line for surprise medical needs.
Emergency care in South Wilkes-Barre will help alleviate the wait times at the Geisinger Wyoming Valley emergency department, officials say.
The health system has recently made changes at the Plains Twp. medical center including a $2.9 million, 10-bed observation unit, where staff can monitor patients and expedite tests while alleviating emergency room congestion.
“Geisinger’s emergency medical care is a vital community resource that often serves as the front door to our full spectrum of clinical and support services,” said Dr. Ronald Strony, Geisinger Northeast’s emergency medicine director. “Backed by our long-established trauma centers and seven Life Flight helicopters, our emergency medicine teams are on the front lines when it comes to saving lives.”