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Complaint alleges long delays and privacy violations at County-USC emergency room

May 12, 2010 |  4:40 pm

Photo: The new County-USC hospital, a state-of-the-art, $1.02-billion facility, opened in 2008. Credit: Brian Vander Brug/Los Angeles Times Los Angeles County health officials launched an investigation this week into allegations that the emergency room at County-USC Medical Center is so crowded, patients wait an average of 35 hours to be seen -- sometimes without any vital signs being taken -- and hospital workers fail to protect patient privacy.

Within hours of receiving the complaint Tuesday, John Schunhoff, the interim director of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, contacted the Board of Supervisors to inform them his department had begun an inquiry.

A county spokesman disputed the claim of 35-hour waits at the hospital's emergency room, saying the average wait is less than nine hours and varies depending on the patient’s illness.

The complaint, made by a healthcare professional who sought care at County-USC’s emergency room May 4, attracted the attention of the county’s top health officials and county supervisors already grappling with allegations of substandard patient care at another county-run hospital, Olive View-UCLA Medical Center in Sylmar.

In the complaint, the patient said she went to County-USC because of abdominal pain, and wrote that she was “surprised to witness an institutional disregard for basic standards of care.”

Among the allegations:

*  Patients’ names were posted on monitors facing a waiting room describing their symptoms, such as “John Doe, Penile Abscess,” while also listing dates of birth.

*  The patient described seeing 300 patients waiting in two rooms, with many forced to stand because of a lack of seats. The patient said a nurse told her that the average wait time was 35 hours.

*  The patient alleged that only 10 nurses were overseeing the waiting rooms, and the nurses seemed “disgruntled and overwhelmed.”

*  The patient said she waited eight hours before deciding to seek treatment at another hospital, and in that time, no nurse took her vital signs, a practice she alleged put patients in danger.

“If this could be substantiated, it would be hugely problematic because it would show systemic problems,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, of the complaints made about County-USC, which is in Boyle Heights just east of downtown Los Angeles.

Michael Wilson, a spokesman for the Department of Health Services, said the agency has continued making improvements in county-run emergency rooms “by reducing waiting times, increasing patient throughput, and completing timely medical screen exams.”

County-USC moved into a newer, smaller facility in 2008, and skeptics have complained about the fewer number of beds – a drop of more than 25% from the old facility.

The reduction in beds forced the county in 2008 to transfer some patients to another county hospital in Downey.

In November 2009, County-USC made an agreement to transfer some poor patients to Silver Lake Medical Center. County-USC also has arrangements to transfer Medi-Cal patients to private hospitals when there are no available inpatient beds.

-- Rong-Gong Lin II and Molly Hennessy-Fiske

Photo: The new County-USC hospital, a state-of-the-art, $1.02-billion facility, opened in 2008. Credit: Brian Van Der Brug/Los Angeles Times