Crowded Emergency Rooms Put Patients at Risk of Harm

Anybody who has visited the hospital emergency room lately knows just how long you have to wait to receive treatment. In many cases, the staff simply isn’t large enough to accommodate everyone who needs care.

This overcrowding isn’t just inconvenient-it puts patients at risk of harm. Studies have shown that patients in overcrowded emergency departments are more likely to suffer adverse consequences or fall prey to medical errors.

Why are hospitals overcrowded?

Conventional wisdom says that hospital emergency rooms are overcrowded because they are filled with uninsured patients who can’t afford to get care anywhere else. Others blame patients with non-acute illnesses or injuries, and claim that they are clogging up emergency departments by seeking treatment there instead of scheduling a doctor’s appointment.

Although both of these issues exist to a certain extent, neither the reason for overcrowding. In fact, most patients who seek emergency treatment are both insured and suffering from an urgent medical condition.

The real cause of the problem is two-fold: most emergency rooms have fewer doctors than they need, and the overall patient volume is larger – and sicker – than it used to be. Between 2001 and 2008, there was a 23 percent increase in the number of “high acuity” emergency room patients. During that same time period, the time that these severely ill or injured patients spent in the emergency department increased by 41 percent.

The dangers of emergency room overcrowding

There is no doubt that overcrowding puts patients at risk. When so many patients are vying for the attention of a limited pool of doctors, there is a greater risk that patients with acute medical problems won’t get the care they need. A 2009 study published in the journal Academic Emergency Medicine found that patients who seek treatment for chest pain at overcrowded emergency rooms are three times more likely to experience cardiac arrest, heart failure or other adverse cardiovascular outcomes.

Overcrowding also leaves doctors more susceptible to mistakes. Many emergency room physicians and nurses report having difficulty remembering details about each individual patient. This confusion makes it more likely that they will overlook a symptom, misread a report or prescribe the wrong drug.

Patients who are injured because of emergency room overcrowding may have a cause of action for medical malpractice. If you or a loved one is in this situation, a Philadelphia personal injury attorney can help you understand your rights.