June 14, 2024

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Massachusetts Healthcare System Faces Severe Capacity Crisis

The Massachusetts healthcare system is currently grappling with a severe capacity crisis. The situation has been declared ‘high risk’ by the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association, primarily due to financial challenges faced by Steward Health Care. This crisis has led to a hospital capacity crunch, with patients likely to experience prolonged wait times for care and the potential cessation of elective surgeries and non-urgent procedures. This crisis has been intensified by the prolonged closure of Norwood Hospital and the fire at Brockton Hospital.

Extent of The Crisis

On any given day, over a thousand patients are awaiting discharge from Massachusetts hospitals. Regions including the greater Boston area, northeastern Massachusetts, southeastern Massachusetts, the Cape, and the Islands have been designated ‘Tier 3’ risk levels. This situation has been exacerbated by staffing issues and a robust cold and flu season. Health experts have recommended that emergency room care should be sought only for genuine emergencies to help alleviate the backlog.

The Department of Public Health has elevated the risk level of two medical regions to Tier 3, which may cause hospitals to cut back on elective, non-urgent procedures and services. The capacity crunch at hospitals is further complicated due to the unstable finances and uncertainty surrounding the Steward Health Care system.

Immediate Measures Needed

There is an urgent need for action to address the capacity crisis in emergency healthcare services. More than 1,000 patients are typically waiting for beds in post-acute care facilities, leading to a dire need for bed availability coordination. Emergency rooms are overwhelmed, and patients are experiencing extended wait times for secondary care. To address this, Governor Maura Healey has pledged funds to expand bed capacity and mitigate the workforce shortfall.

Challenges in Meeting Demand for Care

Eastern Massachusetts hospitals are facing increasing difficulties in fulfilling the demand for care as they struggle with hundreds of patients ready for discharge but with nowhere to go. Some hospitals are operating at surge levels and are struggling to accommodate extra patients by opening surge areas, placing beds in hallways, and converting rooms into additional treatment bays. According to a survey in December, 1,077 patients were awaiting discharge at 42 hospitals throughout the state, with over half waiting for a place in a nursing home and 44% waiting for more than 30 days.

Impact on Patient Care

The backlog of patients means that those waiting in emergency rooms for post-acute care placement are not receiving the specialized treatment they need, and patients who require hospital-level care are forced to wait longer in emergency departments until the bed they need is available. Delays existed before the pandemic, but they have become worse as hospitals diverted patients to make room for COVID-19 cases. Staff shortages continue to prevent facilities from adding more beds. The average length of stay awaiting transfer to a continuing care bed is 197 days – a significant increase from 161 days in 2021.