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Ambulance Crews Under Strain with Change to New Hospital Site

SPRINGFIELD, Ore. -- The opening of Sacred Heart Medical Center at River Bend earlier this month is putting a strain on Eugene ambulance crews, which are spending more time driving to the Springfield hospital and more time transferring patients there from the old hospital in Eugene.

Peace Health, the hospitals' corporate parent, is operating emergency departments both at River Bend, in the Gateway area of Springfield, and at Sacred Heart Medical Center, University District, in Eugene. But patients requiring surgery or any kind of invasive procedure for trauma, cardiac and obstetric issues, for example, need to be treated at River Bend because that's where the operating rooms and most of the specialists are located.

Medics are spending more time driving to and from the hospital, which means it takes them more time to respond to emergencies, emergency medical service officials said.

"With River Bend being a little further outside the city of Eugene, our ambulances are having to travel farther to get to the hospital," said Scott Olmos, president of the Eugene Firefighters Association Local 851. "And now, because that's the primary hospital we're transporting to, our units are not available to handle calls in Eugene ... and response times are greater because we have to travel from Springfield back into Eugene."

More time spent driving to and from the hospital is starting to take a toll on EMS crew members, he said.

"As time goes and crews work longer and longer hours, it becomes more of a fatigue issue," he said.

Exacerbating the problem is that many Eugene residents are accustomed to going to the University District campus for emergency care, even though they may need to be seen at River Bend, he said. That means ambulance crews spend time transferring patients from the Eugene hospital to River Bend.

In the first seven days the new hospital was open, Eugene ambulance crews transferred 35 patients from University District to River Bend, said Denise Giard of Eugene Fire and EMS.

"We may have to shift our deployment of ambulances, move them to a different location, if we're out of service that much longer," Giard said.

Giard is concerned as well about what will happen when students come back for fall term at the University of Oregon, and how that will affect the number of patients showing up at the University District ER.

But she also said it's too early to make any final judgments. Eugene EMS is tracking the length of calls and emerging patterns in terms of when and where calls are originating, she said. Things may settle down as the community learns about where to go in an emergency, she said.

Peace Health officials say they too are monitoring the situation and working with EMS officials to determine if any changes are needed.

Dr. Gary Young, medical director of Sacred Heart's emergency departments, reiterated that people who are having an emergency should call 911, or if they're not sure, call their doctor.

Women with pregnancy-related problems, and anyone having heart problems, should go to River Bend, he said.

"The patients who show up at University District will be taken care of by emergency physicians and get immediate care," he said. "If they need to go to River Bend they'll be transported."

But decisions about where to treat an ill patient aren't always crystal clear, he said.

"You get into judgment calls," he said. "The safest thing is to transfer to River Bend.

"I think the medics have done an excellent job. I also understand their need to do as few transfers as possible because they want to be in their community in Eugene for the next 911 call."

Young said Peace Health officials will continue to meet with EMS.

Sicker patients are going to River Bend, as they should, he said. In addition, the number of ER visits at the two hospitals has increased since River Bend opened Aug. 10, he said.

Before River Bend opened, the University District ER was treating an average of 167 patients per day, and rarely reached 200, Young said.

In the first 10 days after River Bend opened, a daily combined average of 211 patients were treated at the two ERs, an increase of 26 percent.

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