Kansas mental health facilities strained by workforce shortages

The president at Ascension Via Christi St. Joseph says that overcrowding in the ER is the main cause of staff facing incidents of violence.
Published: Aug. 30, 2022 at 8:09 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) -As the demand for mental health resources grew during the COVID-19 pandemic, providers are facing stressful situations as they try to meet the needs of a rising number of patients while dealing with workforce shortages.

Last week, Robyn Chadwick, President of Ascension Via Christi St. Joseph detailed to Kansas lawmakers what the hospital’s staff is going through and how the state can help.

The place with the most pronounced challenges is inside the emergency room at St. Joseph. Coming through the emergency entrance is many behavioral health patients, in addition to those needing medical care.

Chadwick said the overcrowding in the E.R. is a prominent cause for why the hospital staff is facing incidents of violence.

“Am I either going to be the recipient of a kick or a punch or a hit or am I going to watch one of my coworkers get hurt today?” Chadwick said.

The ER at Ascension Via Christi St. Joseph has 29 beds.

“Over the last several years, the volume has grown so significantly that we now need 49 rooms to really be able to deliver safe care,” Chadwick said.

Across the healthcare industry, mental health providers are facing some of the most pronounced workforce shortages seen in the healthcare industry.

“We see about 600 patients a month that come to the St. Joe emergency room for a mental health crisis. That really taxes our staff and pushes us for space,” Chadwick said.

Chadwick said she’s waiting to hear back from the state after requesting $22 million in ARPA funds to expand the ER at St Joseph to 49 rooms to better care for medical and behavioral health patients.

“More space and not patients and staff being piled on top of each other; it will really help with the incidents of violence,” she said.

While the ER is the front line for mental healthcare, it’s not the last place to see the growing mental health need. St. Joseph has 101 in-patient beds, most reserved for adults. Chadwick said they’re running at 95% occupancy.

“It is not at all unusual in our emergency department to have 10 to 20 more patients who are here for a behavioral health crisis who are waiting to be admitted into our in-patient unit,” she said.

Chadwick said a state psychiatric hospital built in Sedgwick County would be one of the best ways to help with the growing demand for mental healthcare and serve patients who need a higher level of care

“Having those 11 to 12 patients a month that could qualify for state care is just another factor in contributing to the overcrowding both in our ER and in the high utilization of our inpatient beds,” she said.

The state budget this year included partial funds for a 50-bed psychiatric hospital in Sedgwick County. Chadwick said providers also need help from state lawmakers to address some of the workforce needs to make sure the needed staff is there to run the facility.