Hilton Head Hospital opens age-friendly senior ER

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Mike Payne, center, director of Emergency Services at Hilton Head Hospital, explains amenities in the new Senior Emergency Room to visitors at the March 23 grand opening for the addition. PHOTO BY LYNNE COPE HUMMELL

While $1 million might not buy happiness, there's no doubt that $1 million can provide specialized care, treatment and an age-appropriate environment for emergency room (ER) visits for the area's senior population, thanks to Hilton Head Hospital.

The 93-bed acute-care institution, which opened in 1975, held a grand opening March 23 for its new senior-friendly emergency room, the first of its kind in Beaufort County. It represents a nine-month effort that began last summer as an idea and was developed into a real practice with a team headed by Chief Executive Officer Jeremy Clark and the chief nursing officer, medical staff, emergency room physicians, ER nurses and the facilities team.

"We recognized a need for it in our community," said Clark, who joined the regional healthcare hospital as chief administrator more than two years ago. "We live in a community that's both growing and aging, and we see this as a great responsibility for us to continue driving for improvements in care and service."

Clark said the hospital had 24,000 ER visits last year, 40 percent of which were seniors.

So exactly what does a senior-friendly emergency room do? It accommodates seniors age 65 and older in services and amenities targeted to that demographic with training and credentials earned by staff and an environment conducive to healing.

"It's a specialized unit within our emergency department," said Dr. Brett Cargill, chief of staff at Hilton Head Hospital and emergency care physician. "It's really a different experience than the typical ER room."

During the grand opening, Clark pointed out that just because a person is over the age of 65, he or she would not automatically be sent to the senior ER. "This is not necessarily for the active 70-year-old who falls off his bike and scrapes his knee," he said.

Upon arrival at the regular emergency room entrance, senior patients will be met by a triage nurse for screening and then, if so indicated by the nurse's assessment, be ushered through double doors into a separate facility with eight private rooms attended by three to four geriatric emergency certified staffers.

Handrails, specially designed rooms with softer lighting and visual aids, body-warming devices, non-slip equipment and floors, soothing color schemes, lifts in rooms for greater mobility, ergonomically designed furniture, more comfortable mattresses and limited external stimulus to help reduce noise are all part of the experience, they both said.

"Trips to the emergency room can be exceedingly unsettling, and this will allow us to care for them in a more serene manner to hopefully reduce agitation," said Dr. Cargill. "We'll see the full variety of issues a senior patient will present to the emergency room: underlying lung issues, cardiac issues, infectious issues. This is an area dedicated for the senior patient environment."

"We're very fortunate that overall, we have a very healthy, active older community," said Clark, who has worked in the healthcare field for more than 20 years. "However, we also know that older patients are more clinically complex, and it may take a longer time to diagnose in the ER."

All of the physicians are board certified in emergency medicine and medication management. The hospital also has joined a partnership with a national program called Nurses Improving Care for Healthsystem Elders (NICHE). Clark said he expects the entire nursing staff to achieve NICHE certification in the near future.

Dean Rowland is a veteran senior editor and freelance writer.

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