STUDY: Crowded ERs Could Be Hazardous To Americans’ Health

New research suggests that patients who need to be admitted to the ER when the hospital’s emergency department is at its busiest could suffer more than just long waits. In fact, they may be more likely to stay in the hospital longer, rack up expensive medical bills, and potentially even have a greater chance of dying.

Wonkblog’s Sarah Kliff flags a new study that tracked people who were admitted to California hospitals in 2007, both during times that the emergency departments were “saturated” with patients and the times that they were less busy. The researchers found that patients who visited the ER while it was crowded with other increased their odds of dying by five percent:

There aren’t many differences in the types of patients who visit the emergency department when its crowded or when its empty. Of those who came in to a saturated emergency room, 10.3 percent had congestive heart failure, compared to 10.4 percent of those arriving during less crowded hours. About half of the patients in each condition were white and just under a third were African-American.

The one big difference, this paper finds, is in the morality rate: Patients who came into a saturated emergency department had a 5 percent higher chance of dying in the hospital after their admission.

Researchers, who noted that “emergency department (ED) crowding has become an international health delivery problem,” attributed the jump in mortality rates to patients facing strained staff resources and extra delays.

This could be especially bad news for residents of New York City, where damage in the wake of Hurricane Sandy has left a lasting impact on the hospital network. After flooding and power outages forced four of the city’s hospitals to close — including the premier high trauma center in Manhattan — the hospitals that remain open are struggling under the increased weight of additional patients flooding into their emergency departments. ER visits have jumped by 25 percent in some New York City hospitals. The hospitals that remain closed do not expect to be able to resume full operations for several months.