ELLSWORTH — In January of 2019, Northern Light Health turned to outside hospital staffing agency TeamHealth for its hospital emergency medicine doctors, physician assistants and nurse practitioners. Headquartered in Knoxville, Tenn., the agency provides physician services for hospitals nationwide.
“It can be hard to lure providers here,” Northern Light Maine Coast Hospital Senior Physician Executive Dr. Sheena Whittaker said with a nod to the relatively rural nature of Downeast Maine. “TeamHealth has special operators ready at any moment. If anything, I feel we have a better back-up system than we did before.”
Yet long wait times in the emergency rooms do happen.
“It’s a TeamHealth issue and it’s a summer issue,” Whittaker noted. “Our census is almost double in the summer.”
So, when an ER doctor called in sick for a Maine Coast emergency room shift last month, a local man found himself waiting to first see an ER nurse and then an ER doctor.
Ron Frost is in treatment for severe kidney issues, and his wife, Valerie, a retired registered nurse with the Veterans Administration, brought him to the Maine Coast Hospital ER on Aug. 15 at 10:15 a.m. She said Ron waited two hours to see a triage nurse, and then spent another two-to-three hours in the waiting room for an available bed. After receiving emergency care, he waited another 36 hours for a regular hospital bed and another two and a half days for a bed to open at Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.
While very concerned about the wait times, Frost said the care her husband received was fantastic.
“I was blown away,” she said. “It made me reluctant to complain.”
The nurse on duty told Frost that one ER doctor had called in sick, leaving Dr. Jean-Bernard Poirer to see 40 patients, with no physician’s assistant or nurse practitioners scheduled.
Poirer is no longer at Maine Coast, or with TeamHealth, according to its human resources department.
“It’s like they push out the good people,” Valerie Frost said, noting that Dr. Poirer had told her he was leaving his position.
“It used to be when you went to the ER at Maine Coast [Hospital], there were three providers, a doctor, a physician’s assistant and a nurse practitioner,” she said.
Currently, TeamHealth shows openings in Ellsworth for an emergency room doctor, emergency room physician assistant and a hospital doctor, plus a hospital doctor in Blue Hill.
The hospital “works closely on wait times, but it does happen,” Whittaker said.
In the ER, the sickest, most critical patients are seen first.
“We try to move the not-as-sick to primary care,” Whittaker said. “Certainly, our goal is for people to be evaluated as soon as possible.” In addition, the hospitals must meet national quality standards, including those for ERs.
Of course, this summer was not a normal summer.
“Not only do we have summer volume,” John Ronan, CEO of Northern Light Maine Coast and Blue Hill hospitals, said in an understated manner. “This year has a been a little different with COVID-19.”
In addition, Ronan said, unvaccinated patients are placing a burden on the “obviously finite” number of available hospital beds.
Of the 49 COVID-19 patients hospitalized across all Northern Light Health facilities apart from Mayo Hospital and Home Care and Hospice on Sept. 7, 44 were unvaccinated. Of the 21 of them in the ICU, 20 were unvaccinated. All seven of the COVID-19 patients on ventilators that day were unvaccinated.
“The numbers are staggering,” Whittaker said. “But we can still flatten the curve between vaccination and masks.”