Registered nurse Debbie Goldstein checks up on patient Ernesto Contreras at the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center ER on Wednesday. (photo by Brandon Wise)

15TH STREET — The Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center and Orthopaedic Hospital built it, and they came.

The days have been increasingly busy at the new Nethercutt Emergency Center where visits have jumped by almost 350 patients a month over last year, a spike that hospital officials attribute to the expansion in services offered and improvement in overall efficiency thanks to the state-of-the-art facility.

The 16,000 square-foot center opened in July 2007 as the first patient care area in the hospital’s new Southwest Wing, designed with features meant to speed up visits in the ER, including one that links Nethercutt to a laboratory through a pneumatic tube system that leads to faster turnaround time for results. The hospital also launched last year a new fastER service for minor injuries and illnesses, keeping patients on average of about 72 minutes.

The result is a jump in ER visits as medical personnel are able to treat more patients, hospital officials said.

“A lot of these advancements have improved our turnaround time for both discharged patients and admitted patients,” Dr. Wally Ghurabi, the hospital’s medical director, said.

Ghurabi added that volume also increased after departments like geriatrics, solid oncology and pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) moved from Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Westwood to Santa Monica. The hospital is the only emergency department approved for pediatrics in the city.

ER visits at Saint John’s Health Center on the other hand are relatively the same as last year, Greg Harrison, a spokesman, said.

Also affecting visits overall at UCLA-Santa Monica is the closure of other emergency rooms in the Los Angeles area over the past several years, including at Robert F. Kennedy Medical Center in Hawthorne and Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital in Inglewood, the latter of which had a greater impact at the UCLA centers in both Westwood and Santa Monica.

The number of ER visits at Ronald Reagan has similarly increased by an average of 300 patients a month, which officials said is due to the awareness of the new facility, improved service and an increase in the local population.

“As a Level 1 Trauma Center and designated stroke center, we see a high acuity of patients, including trauma, transplant and stroke patients as well as other adults and children in need of subspecialty care,” Rachel Champeau, spokeswoman for the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, said. “We haven’t seen a significant upswing in visits related to the flu at this point.”

The trends at the two hospital are reflected statewide where the economy is having a suspected impact on emergency rooms.

The California Hospital Association in April surveyed its member hospitals to gauge the impact of the recession, learning that 57 percent reported an increase in uninsured patients visiting the ER as a result of people losing their jobs and consequently, their health insurance.

Adding to the issue are the doctors who close their practices to Medi-Cal because of the program’s low payments, causing the patients to seek medical care in the ER, Jan Emerson, a spokeswoman for the California Hospital Association, said.

There are then the patients with private health insurance who visit the ER just because they couldn’t make an appointment with a doctor.

“Many times you call to make an appointment and you can’t get in for several weeks,” Emerson said. “That causes people to say they can’t wait several weeks and go to the ER.”

Regionally, ER visits have increased anywhere from 5 to 20 percent. Jim Lott, spokesman for the Hospital Association of Southern California, said part of the reason is the higher level of respiratory distress-type complaints and concerns over H1N1, also known as swine flu.

“Living in L.A. is like smoking a pack of cigarettes a day,” Lott said regarding the jump in respiratory illnesses.

Emergency rooms in Los Angeles County have seen an overall 29 percent increase in demand in the past 12 years while capacity has remained relatively stagnant during that time.

With the H1N1 flu, hospitals are concerned about the impact to emergency rooms in the next two to three months, Emerson said, suggesting that people worried about flu-like symptoms stay home, drink liquids, and get some rest, calling the doctor before going to the ER.

“If everybody just decided to come directly to the ER without calling the doctor first, it will add that much more to the overall ER overcrowding problems,” she said.

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