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UPMC chief medical officer: Lack of staff, higher demand for health care stress hospitals

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues across the country, hospitals are becoming inundated with spikes in cases of patients being admitted for pre-existing conditions which have gone without treatment over the course of the pandemic.

“The main concern and what we are really stressed with in our daily practices right now is just really the general deconditioning that our community has gone through over the course of this pandemic,” said Dr. Michael C. Gerst, chief medical officer of emergency services for the North Central Region, UPMC. “The fact is that the majority of patients in our hospital right now are non-COVID patients that have chronic underlying disease states that have become worse since this (the pandemic) started.”

“We have a population that was concerned and frightened to come to the hospital, to perhaps go see their doctor, or come to the E.R. when they were experiencing certain symptoms, so they put it off,” he said. “Putting it off has allowed that disease process to progress and become more significant and by the time they must come to the E.R., they are very, very sick.”

The same pattern appears to be emerging in terms of patients being presented with different types of cancers, he added.

“It seems as though in the emergency department we shouldn’t be seeing as much primary cancer as we are seeing currently. It seems as though we are seeing more cancer now than what we previously did in years past.”

UPMC’s hospitals aren’t alone in this trend.

“This has been going on across the nation,” Gerst said. “Limited resources right now, staffing shortages and a far greater demand in health care than what we’ve been accustomed to… can create this cascading effect through the health care system.”

“This cascading effect” has required emergency room and hospital staff to come up with new solutions and ideas to ensure there are enough beds available at all times to take in presenting patients and give them the space they need. Half of the available space in the E.R. waiting area at the Williamsport Hospital has been reconfigured into nontraditional care stations for incoming patients, Gerst said.

When asked what community members can do to help local health care providers, Gerst emphasized the importance of developing healthier lifestyles and focusing more on and reaching out for help with mental health.

“Another patient population we have seen really increase during this is the mental health population,” he said.

He also stated the importance of not viewing the emergency room as a “convenience.”

“One of the things we would really appreciate in the emergency department… (is) responsibility in seeking out these services. They are time consuming, they are expensive and we are currently managing a lot of sick people,” Gerst said. “So if you can get the same at your private care physician or an urgent care, that would be optimal versus going to the E.R. where we are taking care of the sickest of the sick in the community currently.”

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