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Emergency Rooms Or Parking Lots For Patients?

Emergency Departments are "boarding" patients while the patient waits 4 or 5 hours on a room and thats on a good day.

On a good day in the emergency room where we work, patients who need to be admitted to the hospital might expect to wait four or five hours, including evaluation and treatment, before they are sent upstairs to a ready bed.

On a bad day, ER patients might wait two or three times as long, and sometimes much longer.

Recently, one of us cared for a bedridden patient with chest pain who spent 47 hours in an ER hallway before a spot became available in the cardiac unit.

Keeping patients in the ER while waiting for an inpatient bed — a practice known as boarding — isn't unique to the busy teaching hospitals where we work. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most American hospitals have boarded patients in the ER for more than two hours while waiting for an inpatient bed.

It's a stubborn problem. A 2001 study suggested that as many as 1 in 5 ER patients is boarded. In 2006 the Institute of Medicine identified boarding as part of a "national crisis" affecting emergency care. In 2016, two-thirds of hospitals reported boarding patients in the ER or an observation unit for more than two hours, compared with 57% in 2009.

Waiting hours for a hospital bed can be maddening for patients and their families. Sometimes literally. Researchers recently found that long waits in ER hallway beds are associated with delirium, a medical condition defined by confusion and disorientation.

But boarding in the ER affects much more than patients' state of mind. The American College of Emergency Physicians has identified boarding as one of the most important factors in ER overcrowding. And overcrowding, in turn, has been associated with everything from delays in administration of pain medication and antibiotics to longer inpatient stays, greater exposure to medical error, delayed treatment for heart attack and even increased mortality.

To understand why boarding can have so many negative consequences, think of a busy school cafeteria at lunch. No matter how efficient the cafeteria workers are at making and serving the food, processing payment and getting people through the line, no one can sit down to eat if all the tables are occupied with other students.

In our case, the emergency department can be remarkably effective at diagnosis and treatment. But if there's nowhere for admitted patients to go, the whole operation gets bogged down and everyone's care suffers.

If boarding is such a problem, why do hospitals allow it to continue?

The answer, as with so many things in our health care system, is complicated. But it has a lot to do with money.

Since 1975 the number of hospitals in America has declined by 30%. That's more than 1,500 hospitals shuttered, with half a million beds lost.

Market forces have been largely responsible, as technology became more expensive, reimbursement rates were curtailed and hospitals either merged or went bankrupt. Meanwhile, annual ER visits have increased by nearly 50 million since 1995.

It looks like a basic supply and demand problem.

But here's a curveball: Most hospitals operate, on average, at only about 65% of their total inpatient capacity — and this number has actually dropped since 1975.
How can that be?

Reimbursement is a key part of the puzzle.

Medicare, which provides insurance for about 60 million Americans, sets the bar for how much hospitals are paid, from treating pneumonia to neurosurgery. And those reimbursement rates have strongly favored invasive procedures like surgery, colonoscopy and cardiac catheterization.

Article by npr
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