The annual influx of snowbirds into Marion County is as certain as tides hitting Florida beaches.

Nearly 30 percent of Marion County residents are seniors and, according to a University of Florida study, the state’s senior population increases 20 percent when snowbirds head south in the winter to avoid the cold.

Snowbirds boost the economy as they buy meals, clothes, gasoline and mortgages.

Often, when they get sick, because their doctors are up north, they head to local emergency rooms.

The influx, along with an increase in winter flu cases, has all of the county's hospital ER departments seeing a hike in patient visits.

“They pretty much go for everything because they don’t have primary care doctors in town,” said Richard Petrik, the medical director of emergency services for Ocala Health.

Ocala Health is made up of Ocala Regional Medical Center, West Marion Community Hospital, a stand-alone ER facility in Summerfield and individual clinics.

Ocala Regional has 20 ER exam rooms and is adding 12 more. West Marion has 22 such rooms and its next door Quick Care center has nine. West Marion is adding nine more exam rooms to its ER department.

Munroe Regional Medical Center has 41 ER examination rooms, with 16 more at its TimberRidge emergency center on State Road 200.

“Usually about Thanksgiving we see an increase in the number of visits,” said Heather Morey, director of emergency services at MRMC.

Morey said the way to beat the congestion in ER waiting rooms is to not have to go in the first place.

“Because of the increase in patients, what we suggest is getting your flu shot and washing hands and sneeze into your elbows,” she said. "There are things you can do.”

Because snowbirds often are seniors, they are more likely to also have chronic medical conditions when they come to an ER, which can slow down the patient flow process.

“Patients with more serious issues need a lot more testing,” Morey said.

With seniors, ER doctors and nurses typically encounter such ailments as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart problems or a combination of chronic diseases, said Erica Brown, manager of Munroe Regional’s ER department and children’s ER department.

When seniors come down with an illness, it is more likely that illness will have a greater effect on them, sending them to an ER, Morey said.

And they have more of a chance of being admitted to a hospital, Brown said.

During October, Munroe Regional’s main ER department saw 3,793 patient visits. In January 2017, that climbed to 4,072, a 7.4 percent increase. TimberRidge’s ER saw 2,482 patient visits during October. In January, that increased to 2,673 patient visits, or a 7.7 percent hike.

Ocala Health saw similar increases, with a typical 2.5 percent increase in ER visits after January.

To try and keep ER waiting times down, Munroe offers patients the option of making appointments online. Even so, Brown said, “we would like everyone to understand, the greater the emergency, the more serious the condition, they will obviously get priority.”

West Marion has a quick care service for less serious cases so patients don’t have to wait as long for treatment. The service also takes out patients from the traditional ER setting who are not as sick.

Petrik said that while some patients have no choice when they come to an ER because of life-threatening conditions, others can choose what time to arrive. The goal is to reduce any bottleneck in providing ER service, he said.

Hospitals can ensure they have proper staffing and enough ER exam rooms, but patients should know about the busiest times, such as Mondays and between 10 and 11 a.m., and, if possible, avoid those days and times, he said.

And, make sure to see your primary care doctor when you are sick if you can in order to keep out of the ER. But sometimes that’s not possible, Petrik said.

“When it comes to acute issues, they’re so miserable they don’t want to wait,” Petrik said. “That’s why we’re here.

Reach Fred Hiers at fred.hiers@starbanner.com and 352-397-5914.