Idaho’s hospitals as a case study of decentralized healthcare

In last week’s issue, I mentioned that I am thinking more about preparedness: how the U.S. can improve our capacity to respond to public health threats, future COVID-19 surges and beyond. This mindset shift was brought on, in part, by a recent story I worked on at the Documenting COVID-19 project: examining the vulnerabilities in Idaho’s hospitals as a case study of the U.S.’s decentralized healthcare system.

Last summer and fall, Idaho was completely overrun by the Delta variant. State leaders implemented crisis standards of care, a practice allowing hospitals to conserve their limited resources when they are becoming overwhelmed. All hospitals in Idaho were in crisis standards for weeks, with the northern Panhandle region remaining in this crisis mode for over 100 days.

During this time, Idaho hospitals sent out 6,300 patient transfers in the span of four months. With Audrey Dutton, my reporting partner at the Idaho Capital Sun (a nonprofit newsroom covering Idaho state government), I analyzed data from the Idaho health department that showed where these patients were transferred, as well as how the crisis period compared to previous months.

This map shows all patient transfers out of Idaho hospitals between April and November 2021. Chart by Betsy Ladyzhets, published in the Idaho Capital Sun and MuckRock.

Here are the major findings from our story (borrowing some text from my Twitter thread, linked above):

  • More than one in three transfers went to hospitals in neighboring states, with the highest numbers going to eastern Washington.
  • Transfers went as far as Seattle, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Billings, and even Phoenix. Many of these trips required air ambulances, due to Idaho’s mountainous geography.
  • These transfers strained Washington hospitals. Dr. Dave Chen, chief medical officer at MultiCare Deaconess Hospital in Spokane—one Washington hospital that took on a lot of Idaho patients—told me that smaller, rural facilities in his area are all “competing for the same beds and resources,” whether these facilities are based in Washington or Idaho.
  • Workers at facilities in the northern Idaho region, which remained in crisis standards for over 100 days, described doubling patients up in ambulances, traveling for hours to find free beds, and taking EMS staff away from their normal duties for long trips.
  • Idaho is particularly vulnerable to transfer challenges: it has a lot of small rural hospitals without many ICU beds or specialized equipment, combined with geography that often requires an air ambulance rather than driving.

This story has implications beyond Idaho, as it shows the impact of America’s fractured health system. In our system, when hospitals in one state are in crisis, they cannot easily communicate with other hospitals that might be able to help them out—whether “communicating” means calling up hospital administrators to ask about free beds or sharing data about patient numbers and resources.

This is not just a COVID-19 problem. Consider what happens when a wildfire, hurricane, or other natural disaster hits. When hospitals in one area become overwhelmed, they should be able to easily reach out to other facilities—but our system makes this incredibly difficult.

One potential solution to this issue may be centralized transfer centers, which field calls from hospitals that need to send out their patients. Washington started such a transfer center during the pandemic, to great success: Dr. Steve Mitchell, who helps run the center, told me that it facilitated more than 3,500 patient transfers, mostly between summer 2021 and early 2022.

But there’s a kicker: Washington’s transfer center is funded by the state health department, and therefore it can only answer calls from Washington hospitals. If an Idaho hospital wants to transfer a patient into Washington, it has to call various Washington hospitals directly until finding a bed for that patient—a much more time- and resource-intensive process.

Look at how siloed our current system is! This is ridiculous! Clearly, we need transfer centers with regional—or even national—reach, coordinated by a national health agency. We also need more data sharing between hospitals, and better communication between facilities and EMS providers.

Again, you can read the full Idaho story here, and check out my underlying data analysis here.

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