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'Journal Sentinel' Investigates Impact Of Ambulance Diversion

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Emergency Room visits have been steadily rising in the United States over the past few decades. The influx in patients has led to overcrowding at many hospitals and the implementation of a policy known as "ambulance diversion." The practice allows a hospital to temporarily close its ER to ambulances.

Ambulance diversion is now banned in Milwaukee County, but it still goes on in other parts of the state and the country. According to an investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, of the 10 largest cities in the U.S., nine still allow ERs to divert ambulances in some cases.

" ... You may even come to a hospital that's on ambulance diversion, and the ER is not that busy. It's because there's no place to take the patients."

John Diedrich is a reporter for the Journal Sentinel and the assistant editor of the paper’s investigative team. Through his reporting, he found some systemic issues with ambulance diversion. Experts have found that diverting ambulances doesn't actually decrease overcrowding in hospitals. Delays in care can often be attributed to organizational issues, like how quickly a patient is evaluated, moved to the right care unit, and eventually discharged.

"A lot of people may not even know they have been diverted ... The hospitals themselves may not know that this is a diversion case."

"All those processes behind the emergency department are often what are jammed up. There's a bottleneck elsewhere in the hospital. And so you may even come to a hospital that's on ambulance diversion, and the ER is not that busy. It's because there's no place to take the patients," Diedrich explains. 

Yet, the true impact of hospitals diverting ambulances is hard to ascertain. There are no federal standards or oversight of the policy, and oversight requirements at the state and municipal level vary significantly. 

"A lot of people may not even know they have been diverted ... The hospitals themselves may not know that this is a diversion case. Really, the only ones who would know for sure would be the dispatchers and the paramedics," Diedrich says.

Joy Powers hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2016.