With ERs Busier, Overcrowding Could Put Your Health at Risk

Every year, more patients are visiting the emergency room. From 2001 to 2008, the number of ER visits by American's jumped from 107.5 million to 123.8 million, according to a 2012 study published this summer in the Annals of Emergency Medicine. The uptick in emergency room visits outpaced the U.S. population growth by 60 percent.

Even more of a concern than the sheer volume of ER visits is the increased amount of time patients are spending in the emergency department once they get there. Over the same period of time, the study found nearly a 30 percent increase in the total time patients spent in the emergency department, from 330 million hours to 417 million hours.

"The growth of crowding since 2001 has been mostly due to increased practice intensity," Dr. Stephen R. Pitts told American Medical News. Dr. Pitts is the study's lead author and an associate professor of emergency medicine at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.

What does that mean? Essentially, patients are getting more hi-tech, complicated treatment than in the past. The use of computed tomography scans, magnetic resonance imaging and ultrasounds more than doubled over the time period studied. Emergency department imaging, blood tests, multiple medications and use of intravenous fluids also all increased and were linked to emergency department crowding.

"If you walked around from room to room at your neighborhood ER and asked people what they were waiting for, almost without fail they're there just waiting for test results," said Dr. Pitts.

This added time in the emergency department queue can be harmful to patients. For example, according to a 2009 report from the Government Accountability Office, one in four hospitals in the geographic area studied had to divert ambulances to other emergency departments due to crowding, which increased the heart attack mortality rate by 47 percent.

Ambulance diversion is an obvious threat to patients who need treatment immediately, but many day-to-day emergency department errors that impact patient care are subtler. Problems like medication errors, misdiagnosis and improperly read test results all become more common when ER staff members are rushed.

When your health is on the line, you have a right to careful, thought-out care. Emergency department overcrowding can put that right in jeopardy. If you believe you may have been harmed by an emergency room error, contact a medical malpractice attorney today to learn more about the monetary remedies you may be entitled to.