To cope with the added volume, the West Chester hospital has embarked on a $5.5 million renovation and expansion project that will nearly double the size of the emergency department.
Such expansions are typical across the region, said Andrew Wigglesworth, president of the Delaware Valley Health Care Council.
Suburban hospitals that have either expanded or are in the midst of expanding their emergency departments include Lankenau, Delaware County Memorial, Taylor, Phoenixville and Lower Bucks Hospitals and Crozer-Chester Medical Center, Wigglesworth said.
Chester County Hospital's present emergency department, built in 1986, serves almost 33,000 patients annually. That figure is projected to climb to more than 37,000 visits in two years, Rougeaux said. In 1998, there were fewer than 29,000 visits.
"The hospital gets 28 percent of emergency department visits in the county - the highest among the five county hospitals," she added.
The new triage and "fast track" areas for the less severe emergency cases - people who should be in and out of the hospital in just over an hour - will be completed by June; the acute-care section by spring 2003, Rougeaux said.
The department will continue to provide complete emergency medical services during the construction project.
"Emergency department treatment is the one entitlement to health care we have in this country," Wigglesworth said. "Many hospitals, particularly in areas where there has been explosive growth like Chester County, are responding to community demand."
According to Wigglesworth, patients often use emergency rooms to avoid long waits to see primary physicians or simply because emergency departments are open 24 hours a day, Wigglesworth said.
"Hospitals have a responsibility to provide emergency services," he said.
"They are reconfiguring their departments to meet both the demand and community needs."
At Lankenau, the new $8 million emergency department is scheduled to open in the fall and will be equipped to handle 45,000 patients a year, said Janet Henry, vice president of ambulatory and support services for Main Line Health. Currently, the hospital sees 30,000 emergency patients a year, she said. This is the first expansion of Lankenau's emergency department since the early 1980s.
"We attribute the growth to an aging population and primary-care physicians who are so overburdened in their offices trying to handle their HMO patients that when someone is sick and needs tests, the best way to do that is to send them on to emergency departments," Henry said.
"There is also the fact that the physicians are not available in the evening so [patients] have a tendency to be referred to the emergency department."
An expansion of the emergency department at Bryn Mawr Hospital is envisioned in the next three or four years, even though it was expanded five years ago, Henry said.
At Chester County Hospital, the new emergency department will offer more privacy to patients.
Curtains separating patients will be replaced with doors, Guthrie said, but more important, the more severe cases will be separated from the less severe.
"If you're a child with a chest cold, you don't want to be next to a women who has had cancer for 30 years, has just died, and is surrounded by family," Guthrie said.
Donna Froio, the hospital's director of emergency services, said: "We are trying to provide better customer service so that people don't walk out because of long waits and go to a competitor."
Susan Weidener's e-mail address is email@example.com.