The new emergency department of Lawrence Memorial Hospital will have more space devoted to the treatment of psychiatric conditions, but the hospital does not have any plans to reopen the mental health unit it closed in 2004.
LMH leaders on Wednesday said new numbers show the hospital has about 30 patients per month who need to be transferred to hospitals in Topeka or Kansas City to receive mental health treatment.
But LMH's board of trustees was told that number is still not large enough to allow the hospital to reopen a mental health unit.
Hospital board members also were told at their monthly meeting that the hospital's system of providing interim treatment until a patient can be transferred to another hospital is working well.
"I think we really are working hard to have a seamless program to provide services to all our patients," said Dana Hale, LMH vice president of nursing. "We provide them with a pathway to get the mental health care that they need."
When the hospital's new emergency department opens in early March, it will have more space devoted to caring for mentally ill patients. Currently, the emergency department has two safe rooms that are used exclusively to treat mental health patients who are in crisis. The rooms provide a safe place for patients to be screened by a mental health worker or serve as a monitored area where patients can wait to be transferred to a mental health unit elsewhere.
The new emergency department will have three safe rooms and a dedicated nursing area to support the rooms. The rooms also will be equipped with video cameras to provide extra security and patient safety, Hale said.
Some mental health care advocates are still hoping for more. Alan Miller, a real estate agent who has served on area mental health boards, said the hospital's emergency room services are not a substitute for an inpatient unit. Miller said mental health patients often suffer by receiving care outside the city because it pulls them away from their support system of friends and family.
"To have to go out of the area is many times a hardship," Miller said. "So many people with a mental illness have used up the resources they have, and to have family travel distances to be with loved ones is often very difficult, and a lot of times it just doesn't happen."
Janelle Martin, executive director of the Douglas County Community Health Improvement Project, said her group is monitoring the demand for mental health services in the county. A 2006 report by a CHIP task force estimated about 15 patients per day are needed to operate a full-functioning mental health unit.
Martin said CHIP has appointed a subcommittee to monitor mental health issues in the county. The group - which has met about six times since March - includes Douglas County Commissioner Bob Johnson; City Commissioner Boog Highberger; Gene Meyer, president and CEO of LMH; David Johnson, CEO of the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center; Marcia Epstein, director of Headquarters Counseling Center; and Elizabeth Smith, a community representative.
LMH closed its mental health unit in 2004 amid concerns of low patient volume and an inability to find enough doctors to staff the unit. The nonprofit hospital contends it did not close the unit for financial reasons.
The hospital does provide inpatient mental health care to patients who have been admitted to the hospital for a physical condition but also have a mental health condition. The hospital is operating that program at a loss of about $150,000 through the first 11 months of this year.