CAMP LESTER, Okinawa — Like many overseas U.S. naval hospitals, Camp Lester’s has to juggle patients with a shoestring staff shorted by ongoing deployments.

Emergency room staffing has been halved as doctors and nurses are deployed to Kuwait or assigned to new duty stations elsewhere.

To tackle complaints of lengthy emergency room wait times, the hospital recently implemented a computer check-in process, and is promoting a patient hot line that offers medical advice.

Hospital officials say these tools should help ease wait times and improve patient processing, but patients should understand the system is overburdened.

Between 1,500 and 1,900 people visit the emergency room monthly, said Cmdr. Sharon Troxel, head of the emergency department. The 12-bed ER has just one physician for each 12-hour shift, supported by a team of two nurses and, typically, three corpsmen.

"The goal is to take care of all of you, but it will just take some time," Troxel stressed. "And that means prioritizing patient care needs based on certain criteria." A triage system determines the order of patient care based on need, Troxel said.

In March, the department started the computer sign-in system where patients type in their ailments before being officially processed via paperwork and triaged by staff, she said.

The system allows staff to monitor the number of patients in the waiting room and assess the type of care they’ll need.

"The doctor can see up front what the chief complaint is," Troxel said. "It just gives us a better idea of the different complaints, helps us with bed management and the efficiency of the triage."

Even with the staffing shortages, she said patient wait times on Okinawa are only 75 minutes — short compared to a nearly four-hour wait in the States.

"People don’t realize they get seen relatively quickly compared to those in the U.S.," she said. "People aren’t used to waiting in Okinawa."

Troxel said a lack of medical alternatives is a contributing factor.

Unlike in the States, where servicemembers can also seek treatment at community hospitals and urgent-care facilities, Troxel said Lester is "the only game in town. Everybody uses the ER because it’s the only thing open after 4 p.m. and on the weekends."

There’s also a misconception that patients who seek treatment at an emergency room will be seen faster. Though the hospital staff discourages anyone from leaving the ER without being seen, Troxel said making an appointment with a primary care physician is usually faster.

ER staffing is expected to double throughout the summer and fall, Troxel said.

Stars and Stripes reporter Cindy Fisher contributed to this report.

Emergency hot linePatients are encouraged to call the Okinawa Clinical Answering Service to assess whether symptoms such as runny noses, fevers and rashes warrant a trip to the emergency room.

The phone line is available 24 hours a day. A receptionist will pass on your message to a health care provider who will contact you immediately to address your concerns. Dial DSN 643-4245 if dialing on base or 911-5111, then 643-4245 if calling from off base.

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