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, interim director of the county Department of Health Services, contacted the Board of Supervisors to say his department had begun an inquiry.
A county spokesman disputed the claim of 35-hour waits, saying the average time 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 that she went to County-USC because of abdominal pain and 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 woman described seeing 300 patients waiting in two rooms, with many forced to stand because of a lack of seats. She 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 that 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.
Michael Wilson, a health department spokesman, said the agency has continued making improvements in county-run emergency rooms "by reducing waiting times … and completing timely medical screen exams."
County-USC, which is in Boyle Heights, moved into a newer, smaller facility in 2008, and skeptics have complained about the lower number of beds — a drop of more than 25% from in 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.