Nurses at Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington, North Carolina have been sounding the alarm over staff shortages for weeks, and now a patient appears to have died while waiting for treatment in the ER. The hospital has disputed the claim, but the nurses say it shows just how dangerous staff shortages can be.
A local news outlet reported that a patient died in the lobby of the ER on June 6. Official channels have yet to disclose the details to the public, but several staffers confirmed that long wait times led to the patient’s death. Investigators have also been collecting testimony from providers about the incident.
But Novant refuses to accept the blame.
“How this story has been described publicly is not how things occurred, but in respect to the family we can’t comment on a specific situation at this time. We can confirm the State has not been on site this week for any reason,” a Novant Health spokesperson said in a statement.
“We fully appreciate everyone’s desire to get medical care and understand time is important. However, like other hospitals throughout the country, we still are experiencing a healthcare crisis – one that stems from a strained and overwhelmed system dealing with staffing shortages in nearly all areas of care. This, in turn, has created an environment where longer than usual wait times can occur,” the statement continued.
The hospital sent out a mass casualty alert that all five emergency departments were at surge capacity the same day the woman reportedly died in the lobby. Administrators told staff on the floor not to transfer patients to their respective emergency departments until more space was available.
Staffers say long wait times have long been an issue at the facility, but most providers don’t speak publicly about the issue for fear of losing their jobs. Novant is the area’s largest employer and providers would have to travel far to find a job at another facility.
“[Hospital administrators] have made it very clear that you do not post on social media, you do not talk to anybody, zero tolerance,” one NHRMC Emergency Room Nurse told reporters while discussing what many consider to be a dire situation at the hospital. “Nobody is going to want their name used, nobody is going to want to go on record.”
The nurse said the problem isn’t that the hospital is suffering from a shortage of beds; it’s that there isn’t enough staff to care for all the patients in those beds. They said around 70 of the facility’s 100 beds are usually occupied by patients admitted to the hospital for inpatient care but are waiting to be assigned a room, a practice commonly known as ER boarding.
Patients have reportedly waited up to six or seven hours for treatment.
ER staff say they are being overworked to the point where some nurses are afraid to clock in because they know they will be assigned up to nine patients at a time, instead of the usual six, making it impossible for them to deliver adequate care.
“The increased risk of jeopardizing my nursing license due to unsafe nurse-patient ratios, as well as having the feeling of complete defeat and exhaustion following every single shift,” said a nurse who recently turned down a full-time position at the hospital.
“I told the HR manager, it is the feeling that I can’t do or be enough for these patients and their families,” they added. “It’s the constant feeling of anxiety after I have left work wondering if I did everything I could to help the patients. It’s getting yelled at by both patients and their families for not being prompt enough with my attention to their needs of care. It’s trying to monitor a patient with critical vitals while 3 other patients lay in their own excrement waiting for a nurse or nurse’s aide to offer them basic hygiene.”
This isn’t the first time the hospital has lost a patient due to long wait times.
“We have recently lost several patients who have been waiting DAYS in inpatient holding for a bed only to decompensate and need intensive care and die,” said a third nurse. “I used to be proud to work for this hospital but now I worry for my own license and the safety of our patients.”
The hospital depended heavily on travel nurses throughout the pandemic, but officials recently announced that Novant will be moving away from temporary workers and is looking to hire more permanent full-time staff. But the nurses that currently work at NHRMC say the hospital should temporarily hire more travel nurses – regardless of the cost – until the company can find adequate replacements.
“Patients are in the ER being told that they are being admitted and then not being to a room for days,” Angie Gore said of her recent experience at the hospital.
“My stepmom is there now and was told yesterday she is being admitted. I spoke to admissions and [a] patient advocate. They say there’s no rooms. Spoke with a nurse and she says [they are] short-staffed. I think the public has a right to know. So that they can go elsewhere. It is horrible to see the amount of people line up in the corridors of the ER. I will say the nurses are so nice and caring. But the administration just doesn’t seem to get it.”
The southeastern part of the state has seen a sharp rise in population growth over the last years, and Novant has struggled to keep pace with rising demand for medical services. The investigation into the patient’s death remains ongoing.