I-TEAM: Georgia sees long ER wait times, rise in nurse vacancies

Published: Sep. 1, 2022 at 6:29 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - It’s beyond frustrating. You or your loved one need to see a doctor right away, but you end up waiting hours in the emergency room.

The average wait time in Georgia is nearly two and a half hours.

Burnout from the pandemic has resulted in hospital staffing shortages across the state, and those exiting the medical field at the highest rate are the people directly in charge of patient care.

The I-TEAM found the average hospital turnover for registered nurses is now at 96 percent over five years.

Long wait times are just one of the trickle-down effects. In-home nursing care is now more difficult to find, and money spent on travel nurses means less money spent on other hospital services for patients.

Like a shock from a defibrillator, January of 2020 jolted Raegan Weden into the reality of becoming a registered nurse during a pandemic. “I was working for 12-hour shifts in a row, a night shift, and I was working all those bonus shifts.”

She follows a long line of nurses in her family. Immediately after graduation, she accepted a job at a hospital in the Washington, D.C., metro area.

“It’s a very big hospital, like a thousand beds.” All hands-on deck led to exhaustion physically and mentally. “We would have to literally keep them in that room sometimes and isolate them. And it was it’s really hard. … I was seeing these other nurses, you know, they’re like injecting people and Botox and more of the esthetic feel.”

Nursing Solutions Inc. published its annual national health care and RN retention report over the summer. It found that RNs like Reagan “exited the bedside at an alarming rate. Rising patient ratios, elevated occupancy rates, high acuity, and negative patient outcomes, have led to emotional/physical exhaustion, fatigue, and burnout.”

The I-TEAM analyzed another report ranking nurses by population and found Georgia ranks 45th in the nation in the number of active nurses per capita. Here in Richmond County, even with a hospital district, there is only one RN for every 105 people.

The I-TEAM introduced you to Katrina Robinson in the spring.

Her husband, Gary. became bedridden after suffering from a stroke in January.

“He can’t stand he can’t do anything on his own anymore,” she said.

She told us she had called dozens of nursing homes but the roadblock is her husband has a device that keeps his heart beating meaning he needs specialized care and nursing around the clock. “They just say that they did not they don’t accept ill patients.”

Understaffed nursing homes can’t afford to risk taking a patient like Gary. “I bathe and feed him make appointments, schedule his appointments, I’ll give his medications, and changed the dressing for his illness. So, I mean, everything his day, his daily living, his day-to-day living. I have to do that.”

And she can’t find full-time in-home nursing care for him either. “It’s a lot of stuff expected on the nurses to do and for the pay that they pay nurses, it’s not worth to do it.”

Hospitals around the country fill the gaps in staffing with travel nurses, but it comes at a price. According to a report by the American Hospital Association. “Hospitals are paying double for travel nurses to make up for the shortage but the financial impact means other areas must be cut.”

It all added up to too much stress for Reagan who is now using her nursing skills to do Botox injections. “It’s different taking care of people who are sick and people who are just coming in there for beauty.”

The I-TEAM did find some good news. The number of RNs graduating here locally from Augusta University has grown nearly 20 percent since 2017.

The not-so-good news is the demand for nurses is expected to grow by 10 percent over the next eight years.