Mid-sized ER Madness; Thoughts?

I know, I know, I spend way too much time ranting about work in the emergency department.  But after some recent shifts, my box of rants is full once more.  And what I want to point out is the enormous struggle of the mid-sized emergency departments in America today.

I know this is a problem; I work in them, and I know and talk with people who work in them.  It’s getting harder all the time.  So what is that ‘mid-sized’ ED?  For purposes of my discussion, I’d say (depending on coverage) somewhere from 16,000 to 40,000 visits per year.  Now that’s not scientific, that’s just for the sake of discussion, and based on personal experience.

I’d love to hear commentary from readers, because I’m trying to figure it all out.  But let me start with a story.  When I was fresh out of residency, I worked at dear old Oconee Memorial Hospital in Seneca, SC.  Our volume as I recall was around 23-25K per year.  We had pretty good coverage at first, with three 12 hour physician shifts a day.  Patients were sick but we moved them through.  And when I worked nights, I remember that it wasn’t unusual for me to lie down about 3 am and sleep till 7 am.

Fast forward.  Even at my current job where I see 19K per year, there’s barely a night when patients don’t come in all night long.  So is volume spread out more?  Maybe.  Are patients sicker?  Possibly.  I think some of this may be that patients have no primary care, and so they don’t even have an option to ‘wait till morning.’  In addition, a large number of patient (in all ED’s) are jobless.  So in their defense, 3 am is as good as 3 pm when you don’t have to go to a job in the morning.  (I’m not disparaging; but I do think this is true.  Think about your teenagers who sit up all night in the summer if they don’t have jobs!)

I also wonder if our patients are sicker.  I mean, medicine is pretty amazing nowadays, and people who would certainly have died when I was in medical school now repeatedly survive significant heart failure, MI, stroke, pulmonary embolism, respiratory failure, various infections and all sorts of problems.  And when they do, they have to come back to the ED frequently.

For those with docs in the community, I’m sure the offices are crazy busy all the time. Even those docs have patients they just can’t squeeze into appointments. They use the ED.  And maybe, just maybe, our patients are much more ‘medicalized’ than before.  So much of what the emergency departments see is really psycho-social.  Anxiety, depression, suicidality, substance abuse.  The numbers of these conditions seem to be exploding, and they can seldom afford primary care, much less mental health care.  The all-night ED is the place they go.

And there is a subset of patients who use the emergency department for entertainment or convenience; rides, snacks, a way to avoid arrest.  ‘Officer, I…have…chest pain!’  These also take time and space.

So what happens is all of this descends on departments with limited resources and staff.  And all day, and all night, one physician or two, maybe a PA or NP, struggle to sift through five or six chest pains alongside two stroke alerts, a suicidal overdose, two septic senior citizens, a dialysis patient who missed two appointments and has a potassium of 10 and a femur fracture.  Add to that the family of five with head colds.   Sure, this is what we do.  We are emergency physicians and nurses and mid-levels.  But into this mix, in the mid-sized department, recall that there is:  no cardiologist, no neurologist, no psychiatrist or counselor, sometimes no available ICU beds, possibly no pediatrician and definitely no dialysis in the hospital.

The day is spent sorting, stabilizing, making phone calls, transferring and waiting for ambulance or helicopter to become available.  All the while?  Sifting through very cumbersome and inefficient computer documentation systems designed for billing not flow.  And being scrutinized for through-put, time stamps, protocols, national standards, Medicare rules, re-admissions and all that mess.

I really don’t want to sound like a complainer. What I’m concerned about is 1) the safety of the patients and 2) the physical and emotional health of the caregivers.  At the end of the day, we’re all exhausted.  And so much is going on that we can barely find the obvious stuff, much less the subtle things that can also kill.

It sometimes seems as if departments are intentionally understaffed to save money.  I understand that it’s expensive to have doctors, nurses, etc.  But administrators get mad at folks ‘standing around,’ without realizing that in the chaos and suffering of the ED, sometimes it’s really important to ‘stand around.’  To breathe, to think, to rest, to gather oneself, to look up a condition or problem, to debrief.  To eat.  To pee.

I think that the world of medicine has decended on the emergency department.  I know that we handle it valiently.  But I don’t think it’s safe; and it’s nowhere as unsafe as in the relatively under-staffed and under-equipped mid-sized community hospitals of the world.

I’m proud of what we do.  But some days, most days, I wonder how we do it.

Any thoughts?

Edwin