ER renovations expected to reduce wait times at Piedmont Henry

By James Saxton
Times Correspondent

Piedmont Henry Hospital is known for comprehensive care, cutting-edge medical technology and community involvement, its officers said.

The hospital was becoming known, however, for one other aspect, a negative one: Longest wait times in its emergency room.

Veteran emergency room nurse Tammy Browning, left, and new emergency department director Jay Mollet pause outside the newly renovated emergency room at Piedmont Henry Hospital, a $3.1 million project completed earlier this month. Photo by James Saxton

That’s likely to improve, said CEO Charlie Scott, thanks to a $3.1 million emergency department renovation project that was completed on time and under budget earlier this month.

Piedmont Henry is the busiest emergency department in the five-hospital Piedmont Health-care System, seeing more than 83,520 patients a year, Scott said.

In the metro Atlanta area, only Southern Regional Medical Center, at 129 minutes average wait until seen by a medical professional, and Grady Memorial Hospital, at 110 minutes, had longer times than Piedmont Henry’s 98 minutes, in a survey published in April in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The state average is 31 minutes and the national average is 24 minutes.

The problem is a difficult one to fix, Scott said. While it is critical to increase the size of the emergency department, improve the floor plan for better flow, streamline processes, and optimize staffing levels, demand for the ER’s services only grows greater, he said.

“Every year for a few years we’ve seen an increase in our patient volume through the emergency room,” Scott said, noting contributing factors from a growing Henry County population, an aging population and a significant and growing portion of patients who are uninsured and tend to see the ER as the only place they can go to get care.

“We’re grateful for that (patient volume) increase. But two years ago the volume of patients we were seeing had gotten to the point that the size of the ER was simply inadequate. Add to that the fact that parts of the emergency room date back to the original hospital, and, although it’s been expanded a number of times, just because of the wear and tear, it’d gotten worn out. So it was time.”

Scott said the hospital’s board realized that while they were improving the appearance of the emergency department, they needed to address two goals: Increase the functioning or “patient flow,” and increase the capacity.

“One of the results of the lack of sufficient capacity is that patients experience longer waits. We don’t like that. It’s been unavoidable, considering the sheer volume of patients coming to our ER. So we knew we needed to make a significant investment to improve our emergency room.”

Funding was provided by the work of volunteer fundraisers, he said. “We were pleased we were able to allocate funds raised over the years, given by Henry County citizens to the former Henry Medical Center Foundation. The result from this project is a dramatic improvement.”

The challenges are not unique to Piedmont Henry. “Emergency rooms across the country are growing at a rapid place,” said chief operating officer Deborah Armstrong. “We are serving everyone from the very sickest to the not-so-sick, because the ER is an access point for everyone. The good news here is not really about dollars and cents. The goal is to make the experience good for everyone, meeting a wide array of needs.”

Work on the newly expanded department includes doubling the number of triage rooms to four; refurbishing and expanding the waiting room and reception area; adding a space adjoining the waiting room for the Henry County Sheriff’s Office and Henry County Police Department; completely renovating the minor emergency area (40 percent or more patients are treated there); creating a multifunctional area; upgrading and enlarging nursing stations; upgrading the entrances and the canopies for better access; upping parking from 24 spaces to 36; and a “facelift” for every part of the emergency department, including new flooring, fresh paint and other improvements.

The next phase of renovations, to begin this week and to be completed by next summer, targets creating more bed space, Scott said. The just-completed phase added 12 beds and the new phase will add nine more. The hospital will also add 22 more beds in a new inpatient unit within the next two years, he said.

“We’re working hard to increase the patient flow, decrease wait times and make the patient’s experience better,” said Tammy Browning, RN, a 23-year veteran of the hospital’s emergency department. “When you’re hurting or feeling awful, you don’t want to be kept waiting. So obviously, the higher the wait, the lower the satisfaction. We want to improve that while still providing excellent care. We’re on our way toward that.”

The renovation work “makes me proud, because we’re a door to the community,” Browning said. “It helps the whole staff feel better about what we do and where we come in to work.”

Adequate staffing is always a challenge, said chief medical officer Dr. Lily Henson. “One of the struggles we and a lot of hospitals have is getting enough nurses. We are very aggressively looking for more nurses.”

The completed project also provides “a bit of a clean slate” for new emergency department director Jay Mollett. “It’s very clean,” he said, “it’s bright, very welcoming, helps lift the morale of the staff, and helps provide better patient care, so it’s a very exciting time.”

Mollett is working with staff members on process changes to increase efficiency and promote safety and satisfaction. Equipment changes over the next year will also help, he said. “Growing patient volume in part tells us our community trusts us. So we’re changing to meet those needs.”