Ambulances from the Chicago Fire Department are once again transporting critically ill and injured patients to the emergency department of Insight Hospital & Medical Center in Bronzeville on the Near South Side.
Those ambulance rides stopped about a year ago – in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic – during a dire nursing shortage in the hospital’s ER.
Insight had been working to restore city ambulance services ever since the company bought Mercy Hospital, which was the oldest chartered hospital in Chicago, in the 11th hour last year. That rescue prevented the hospital’s closure. The fire department resumed ambulance transports to Insight on Feb. 16, said fire department spokesperson Larry Langford.
“One of the first requests we received from community residents after assuming operational control of the hospital was to allow ambulances to return to the emergency room,” Insight Hospital CEO Atif Bawahab said in a statement. “We heard the request loud and clear, and immediately began addressing staffing levels necessary to ensure we could safely handle the increase in patients once ambulance runs resumed.”
Mercy treated mostly low-income, elderly and Black patients. But it also was part of the fabric of Chinatown and other nearby Chinese-speaking neighborhoods.
Mercy had one of the busiest ERs in Chicago with some 50,000 visits a year, in an area where hospitals and medical services have vanished over the years. But a nursing shortage had gotten so bad, Mercy’s ER was downgraded and could no longer accept city ambulances.
That meant people who called 911 were taken to other hospitals, which already were slammed with patients during the COVID-19 pandemic. The next closest hospital is at least a 10-minute drive from Insight – precious time, depending on a patient’s injury or illness.
WBEZ documented the frenzy last fall, and traced where ambulances that most often went to Mercy had to go instead.
According to a federal inspection obtained by WBEZ, for 15 days in late January to early February in 2021, Mercy’s ER was at times short up to six nurses during shifts. At one point, there were dozens of patients waiting to be treated or waiting for a bed upstairs because they needed to be hospitalized.
“The deficiencies are so serious they constitute an immediate threat to patient health and safety,” Anna Olson, a branch manager at the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, wrote to Mercy’s CEO on Feb. 10, 2021.
The city ambulance transports stopped. They were estimated to make up about 25% of patients who came to Mercy, the inspection report said.
This was a sign that Mercy’s doors were closing fast. Mercy’s parent company was in the middle of closing the hospital before ultimately selling to Insight for $1.
Even without transports from city ambulances, Insight treated nearly 12,000 people who showed up at the hospital on their own, from June when Insight took over the hospital through December, Dr. Anita Goyal said in a statement. She leads emergency medicine at Insight.
“This is significantly lower than the 25,000 patients we have typically seen in the emergency room during that same period, but we are very excited to resume receiving patients brought by ambulance to our critical care emergency department,” Goyal said in the statement.
In an interview, Goyal and Insight Chief Medical Officer Dr. Dillon Bannis would not go into detail about how many people they’ve hired to make sure there are enough providers to treat patients.
But they say they have built up capacity in terms of workers and medical services they offer, after Insight took over a shell of what Mercy had been.
“Our No. 1 goal is to make sure that our patients are safe,” Bannis said.
He would not say how many patients are admitted to the hospital these days, but said Insight has seen an increase since a hospital’s emergency department is typically its front door. And with Chicago ambulances resuming transports to Insight, that means more patients who might need to be admitted and stay overnight.
Both Goyal and Bannis each worked at Mercy for about a decade and stayed when Insight took over.
“We’re very excited, very just grateful for everyone coming together to be able to get us to this point to be able to deliver care to our community,” Goyal said.
Kristen Schorsch covers public health and Cook County on WBEZ’s government and politics desk. Follow @kschorsch.