MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Throughout the Twin Cities and the nation, hospitals have been telling ambulances to go somewhere else with their sick and injured -- for a few minutes, a few hours or even days on end.
Last month at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, the emergency room turned away ambulances on 27 occasions.
The crunch is blamed primarily on a shortage of nurses and other hospital employees and a growing patient volume.
"As nurses we're just extremely concerned," said Marie Stuewe, an emergency room nurse at United Hospital in St. Paul, who noted that the flu season hasn't even hit yet. "That is going to be an absolute disaster."
Twin Cities area hospitals went on "divert status" -- meaning their doors were closed to ambulances -- about 1,000 times last year, according to officials who monitor diversions.
But experts say there's no evidence that patients in the Twin Cities have been harmed by the diversions, even though they may increase their time -- another 15 minutes or more -- in an ambulance.
"If somebody needs emergency medical treatment, they're going to be seen," said Bruce Rueben, president of the Minnesota Hospital and Healthcare Partnership. "It's just a matter of which hospital can see them the quickest."
Experts also say that, for patients, the danger may not be as great as it first seems.
Most patients -- about 85 percent -- don't arrive by ambulance, so the closures wouldn't affect them, according to Dr. Patrick Lilja, medical director of the emergency room and ambulance service at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale.
In truly life-or-death cases, "the ambulance crews can override that decision and go to the closest hospital," he said.
According to federal law, an emergency room cannot close completely. It must accept anyone who shows up at the door, at least long enough to make an evaluation.
So far, state regulators have received few complaints about patients being turned away inappropriately. Last year, six complaints were investigated by the Minnesota Department of Health. Hospital officials admit they have to change the way they do things to cope with the problem. Many are trying subtle things -- cleaning up rooms faster, scheduling elective surgeries on less busy days.
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