For hospitals nationwide, Monday’s solar eclipse was an expensive two minutes.
St. Charles Health System in central Oregon canceled elective surgeries to get ready for a rush of patients and increased emergency and acute care staff by nearly 40 percent.
In southwestern Illinois, Red Bud Regional Hospital added on-call staff and security, and held several weeks of training sessions for clinicians.
And at Palmetto Health in Columbia, S.C., administrators ran public service announcements about how to safely prepare for the eclipse and beefed up trauma and surgery staffing.
But at all those hospitals — and countless others nationwide — the eclipse did not result in a surge of patients who were blinded after staring directly at the sun. Nor did it result in an increase of patients hospitals normally see during any large-scale event. What it did result in was significant contingency planning and hefty sums spent on a clinical non-event.
“The upshot is we have not seen what we anticipated in terms of health care demand,” said Dr. Jeff Absalon, chief physician executive at St. Charles in Oregon. “We tracked this in other circumstances where the influx of people equaled increased demand for services. We just haven’t experienced that.”
Of course, circumstances could quickly change. Most facilities remain on guard and expect at least a trickle of additional traffic from people reporting eye problems, which typically don’t set in until several hours after exposure to solar glare. “The big thing we worry about is solar retinopathy, which is just [ultraviolet] light burning the retina,” said Dr. Ali Raja, an emergency medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital.
No matter who you are, he said, it was hard not to look skyward: “Even right outside the hospital, there are crowds looking at the eclipse with and without glasses,” he said Monday. “I even saw a few health professionals out today looking at the sun without eye protection.”
So far, however, patient volumes have remained normal. Events such as the eclipse present hospitals with an unavoidable catch-22: If they are caught unprepared for such events, patients suffer and so does the hospital’s reputation in the community. But if they do prepare and nothing happens, they get stuck with a hefty tab.
It is too early to tally losses from the eclipse. But it comes at a time when many health care providers are struggling to make their numbers work amid sluggish growth in patient volume and continued uncertainty over Medicare reimbursements and other policies in Washington.
Many spent months planning for Monday’s events, which brought swarms of traffic to small towns and cities across the country that found themselves in the path of totality.
In Columbia, S.C., the eclipse was expected to cause visitor traffic to swell between 200,000 and 600,000. The staff at Palmetto Health spent more than two months preparing.
Dr. Stephen Shelton, an emergency medicine physician at the hospital, said Monday that the hospital had not seen a large influx of patients. “We brought in all hands on deck just to be prepared for the unexpected,” he said.
But so far, the biggest impact on caregivers has been the same as it was for everyone in the region. “Our roads are really gridlocked,” Shelton said, adding that many of the extra staffers got caught in traffic on the way home from the hospital.
The situation was much the same in Salem, Ore., a capital on the opposite side of the country: After nearly a year of preparations, patient volume was light in the hours after the eclipse.
Wayne McFarlin, emergency preparedness administrator at Salem Health, said the hospital did see an increase in traffic in the weeks leading up to the event, as vacationers and eclipse enthusiasts flooded into the region. But the relative quiet of Monday morning left him time to pause for the rarest of solar occurrences.
“It was spectacular,” he said. “Part of the experience is watching everybody else watch the eclipse. It’s something I can’t remember [experiencing] before. I won’t forget it.”