Limited access to primary care could be crowding Md.’s ERs

Donna Wiltrout, 42, had to be at work by 5 a.m. on a recent Tuesday. But at a few minutes to 11 p.m. Monday, she was sitting on a bed in the hallway of Frederick Memorial Hospital waiting to be seen by a doctor.

“There’s no way I’m going to make it,” she said.

Wiltrout, a school bus driver, said she had driven 20 minutes from her home in Thurmont, Maryland to Frederick Memorial Tuesday evening with shortness of breath and increasingly severe chest pains.

A few months ago, she sat in the same hallway spot with the same symptoms, she said, but had to leave because the wait had gotten too long — more than five hours.

Wiltrout said she visits her family doctor every three to six months, but she didn’t have a scheduled appointment in the time from her last hospital visit and wasn’t able to add one.

But that Monday, she said, her symptoms were worse.

With a mostly empty waiting room and few ambulance arrivals, she had been waiting for about three hours.

“You have to be dying to be seen here,” she said. “I’m a single mom of two. I can’t be sitting here waiting forever.”

Hospitals are required by federal statute to offer care to anyone who enters their emergency rooms — even if that means beds have to be out in the hallway, in the corner, by the bathroom.

And they’re feeling the pinch. Emergency departments in Maryland are increasingly requesting that EMTs divert their patients in ambulances to other hospitals.

“Chronic illnesses — like diabetes and heart disease — oftentimes go undiagnosed and undertreated because patients have a difficult time getting to primary care physicians,” said Lam. “(Chronic illnesses) are probably the best kind to be treated in a primary care setting, but they end up squeezing out people in the emergency room who really have emergencies.”

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