Grady & Gwinnett: Already-packed county hospitals wait as state officials debate the fate of Grady Memorial

LAWRENCEVILLE - As state and health officials vacillate on whether or not to keep Grady Memorial Hospital functioning, Gwinnett health officials say the fall of the Atlanta-area hospital would indubitably have an effect on the county.

"I certainly think it would have some impact, but there's no way to keep up with how many (patients) we get from Grady," said Gwinnett Medical Center's Dr. Carlton Buchanan, interim chief medical officer and ER physician.

As it stands, Grady is the region's only Level 1 trauma center, and while Gwinnett Medical Center officials said it would be somewhat detrimental to the state's health care system for the hospital to close, they said Gwinnett won't be the only one to receive Grady's overflow.

"We firmly believe it's bigger than Gwinnett, it's a statewide resource," said Adrienne Hollis, Gwinnett Medical Center spokeswoman. "Everyone is expected to get some of the flow."

If Grady was to close the question of what to do with the patients arises, and Gwinnett's hospitals don't have the room.

Gwinnett Medical Center saw more than 122,000 visitors to its emergency room in 2006, putting the hospital's ER at 95 percent capacity, according to 2006 statistical reports from the hospital.

But Hollis said packed ERs aren't just a problem for Gwinnett.

"It's no secret emergency rooms are already filled to the gills, but that's typical of ERs throughout the state," Hollis said. That's because more and more people are utilizing their local emergency rooms as a primary care facility, Hollis added.

According to Glenn Lander, senior research associate, Georgia Health Policy Center at Georgia State University, 91 percent of Grady's total inpatients come from just five counties - Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton.

"There is a myth that people tend to stay in their own county ... What we learned is that sometimes, convenience trumps the county you live in," Landers said. He adds it could be a combination of people going to a hospital near where they work or just over a county line from where they live.

Hollis said there is no way to tell how many patients GMC sends to Grady or vise versa.

"We get patients from all over," Hollis said. "They may be directed by insurance or the location of the incident. Grady has a burn center and we don't. There are a number of factors."

While Buchanan said he thinks Grady has some issues to work out, he said he doesn't know any medical professional who would want to see the hospital close.

"I feel Grady will receive the support they need to stay open," Buchanan said optimistically. Grady's effect, the doctor added, will be felt all over the state. He said the facility offers vital services, such as a burn and poison control center, which other hospitals lack.

"Down the road I think Grady would benefit from looking at other facilities and how they run their facilities and other nonprofits," Buchanan said.

As far as taking on any other hospitals' overflow, Buchanan said, as with most Georgia hospitals, there's just no room.

"At Gwinnett Medical Center there is no surge in capacity, we don't have beds lying open," Buchanan said. "You're talking about taking 900 hospital beds off line, that will impact the whole Atlanta area and the state."