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Staffing issues at Ascension Columbia St. Mary’s hospital cause growing concern for patients

Staffing issues plague the once premier Columbia St. Mary's Hospital.
Marty Peters
Milwaukee Magazine
Staffing issues plague the once premier Columbia St. Mary's Hospital.

Ascension Columbia St. Mary's Hospital has been widely regarded as a premier healthcare facility in the Southeastern Wisconsin area for decades. The 670,000-square-foot and $400 million building overlooking Lake Michigan on Milwaukee's East side is a pinnacle of modern healthcare facility design. However, as prestigious as the hospital looks on the outside, the operations on the inside are vastly different. As one doctor explained, "Ascension Columbia St. Mary's is a first-class structure on the outside, but third world inside."

This is mainly due to extensive staff shortages that heavily impede the facility's operational capacity. Prior to COVID-19, which heavily impacted multiple healthcare institutions, Ascension was widely eliminating positions to save on overall costs, including at the premiere hospital. This left the facility exceptionally vulnerable to the pandemic. Recovering to full capacity has been a slow process that has slowed operations to a barely functioning state in some areas.

While the short staffing issues are a national concern for healthcare facilities, the conditions at Columbia St. Mary's seem particularly bad. Orthopedic Surgeon Dr. James Stoll says, "I've been a surgeon for more than 40 years. I've worked out of ORs in Germany, Canada, Japan, Nicaragua and across the United States. I've seen a lot of operating rooms, and Columbia St. Mary's is the worst I've seen."

As a result of the shortage, the few staff still working in the hospital are often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of duties that remain. Nurses and other staff members are often required to respond to multiple severe or life-threatening concerns at once, leaving critical medical actions to wait. In describing the condition of the available hospital staff, one nurse said, "We've been running on fumes and luck."

The Milwaukee Magazine has extensively researched the operational conditions of the hospital and published a special report.


Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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