Emergency Rooms Ill-Prepared to Handle Patient Needs

Thursday, June 22nd, 2006
This post was written by Melanie Matthews

Unfortunately, I’ve had plenty of experience with emergency room (ER) visits in my lifetime. Known as the family “klutz,” I probably can’t list the number of broken bones and stitches that led me to visit the emergency room at the local hospital.

Residing in a beach town, it was especially traumatic (pun intended) to have to make this journey in the summertime. In fact, it became a family joke when my Dad would call around to see what the “wait times” were at the ERs at local hospitals.

It’s not a laughing matter anymore. Despite the lifesaving feats performed every day by emergency departments and ambulance services, the nation’s emergency medical system as a whole is overburdened, underfunded and highly fragmented, according to a new report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) “Hospital-Based Emergency Care: At the Breaking Point.”

The IOM report found that ambulances are turned away from emergency departments (ED) once every minute on average and patients in many areas may wait hours or even days for a hospital bed. Moreover, the system is ill-prepared to handle surges from disasters such as hurricanes, terrorist attacks or disease outbreaks.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s visited an ED within the last few years. Understaffed and overcrowded, EDs are serving not only the trauma needs of area residents, but oftentimes the primary care needs of the uninsured.

There are groups at work to change this. Back in 2002, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation created a $6.4 million national initiative called Urgent Matters to “help hospitals eliminate emergency department crowding and help communities understand the challenges facing the healthcare safety net.”

Urgent Matters engaged 10 communities in a safety net assessment and community education process in conjunction with identified hospitals and other community partners, to raise awareness about the state of the local safety net. It also established a Learning Network comprised of 10 hospitals (all public or non-profit, with Level I or II trauma centers) in those same communities. This Learning Network has developed and implemented best practice strategies to maximize ED patient flow and relieve overcrowding. Four of the hospitals also received $250,000 in grant funding for special demonstration projects.

A number of case studies and strategies for addressing this issue are available on the Urgent Matters web site, covering such topics as the admissions process, triage, serving the needs of mental health patients in the ER and bed placement.

In the 30-some odd years that it took me to more or less outgrow my clumsiness (knock on wood), things have not changed much at our local ER. On Memorial Day weekend, relatives of mine spent four hours in the local ER without being seen…left there to see if they would have better luck at an urgent care center a few towns away. Thankfully, the urgent care center had sufficient staff to meet the healthcare needs of this relative (who was later admitted to the same system with the crowded ER).

Related Posts:

Comments are closed.