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Turning people away

Memorial might screen ER patients


A fundamental principle has long guided Colorado Springs' Memorial Hospital in all of its operations: Turn no patient away.

But that could soon change.

In a cost-saving move, the city-owned hospital is considering "screening" patients who come to its emergency room -- meaning that some patients who don't have true emergencies would be told to seek care elsewhere.

"It's being discussed by the administrative staff," said Rita Burns, a spokeswoman for the hospital. She said staff might make a proposal to the hospital's board of directors "after the first of the year."

With almost 100,000 patients last year, Memorial's emergency room is the busiest in Colorado. The large number is a problem in part because of cost; many of the patients don't actually require emergency care, and treating them in the emergency room is far more costly than treating them elsewhere.

Memorial's emergency room was also built to handle just 25,000 patients per year -- one-quarter of its current traffic.

"We have bottlenecks and long waits, and the problem is a lot of the people who come to the emergency department don't really need emergency care," Burns said.

Denver's two public hospitals, Denver Health Medical Center and the University of Colorado Hospital, enacted screening policies last year. Representatives from both of those hospitals met with Memorial board members earlier this year and gave presentations on their policies.

At Denver Health, emergency-room patients have been screened since April 2002. Upon arrival, each patient goes through a pre-examination by a medical professional -- usually a nurse -- who determines whether or not the patient requires immediate treatment. If emergency care isn't necessary, the patient is told to go to the hospital's walk-in clinic or one of Denver's city-run community clinics.

Since the screening policy was implemented, only 2.6 percent of patients coming to Denver Health's emergency department have been told to go elsewhere, according to Dee Martinez, a spokeswoman.

While the screening is free at Denver Health, University Hospital charges $292 for an examination -- whether or not the patient is treated.

Colorado Springs' other hospital, privately owned Penrose-St. Francis, does not screen emergency-room patients and has no plans to do so, said spokeswoman Tanya Bell.

Asked whether screening patients is compatible with Memorial's principle of treating all who come, Burns said she didn't know. "I'm sure that's one of the things that will be discussed," she said.

Terje Langeland

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