ER docs ask, “Where are our patients?”


The COVID-19 pandemic is fraught with unexpected twists, among them a dramatic plunge in emergency department patient volumes, according to an expert panel on unanticipated consequences of pandemic care hosted by the presidents of the Society of Critical Care Medicine and the American College of Emergency Physicians.*

Dr. Donald M. Yealy  is professor and chair of the department of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.

Dr. Donald M. Yealy

“At the peak of exposure to COVID-19 illness or infection, ED volumes in my system, which are really not much different from others across the country, were cut in half, if not more. And those changes happened across virtually every form of ED presentation, from the highest acuity to the lowest. We’re now beyond our highest level of exposure to COVID-19 clinically symptomatic patients in western Pennsylvania, but that recovery in volume hasn’t occurred yet, although there are some embers,” explained Donald M. Yealy, MD, professor and chair of the department of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.

He and other panelists also addressed some of the other unanticipated developments in the COVID-19 pandemic, including a recently recognized childhood manifestation called for now COVID-associated pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome, an anticipated massive second wave of non-COVID patients expected to present late to EDs and primary care clinics after having avoided needed medical care out of fear of infection, and the pandemic’s negative impact upon medical education.

Who’s not showing up in the ED

Dr. Yealy said that across the country, the number of patients arriving in EDs with acute ST-elevation MI, stroke, trauma, and other highest-acuity presentations is down substantially. But the volume of patients with more routine, bread-and-butter conditions typically seen in EDs is down even more.

“You might say, if I was designing from the insurance side, this is exactly what I’d hope for. I’ve heard that some people on the insurance-only side of the business really are experiencing a pretty good deal right now: They’re collecting premiums and not having to pay out on the ED or hospital side,” he said.

Tweaking the public health message on seeking medical care

Dr. Lewis J. Kaplan

“One of the unanticipated casualties of the pandemic are the patients who don’t have it. It will take a whole lot of work and coordinated effort to re-engage with those patients,” predicted SCCM President Lewis J. Kaplan, MD, professor of surgery at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Evie G. Marcolini, MD, described what she believes is necessary now: “We need to have a big focus on getting the word out to the public that acute MI, stroke, and other acute injuries are still a time-sensitive problem and they warrant at least a call to their physician or consideration of coming in to the ED.

Dr. Evie Marcolini is an emergency medicine and neurocritical care specialist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Hanover, N.H.

Dr. Evie Marcolini

“I think when we started out, we were telling people, ‘Don’t come in.’ Now we’re trying to dial it back a little bit and say, ‘Listen, there are things you really do need to come in for. And we will keep you safe,’” said Dr. Marcolini, an emergency medicine and neurocritical care specialist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Hanover, N.H.

“It is safe,” Dr. Yealy agreed. “The safest place in the world to be right now is the ED. Everybody’s cordoned off. There’s way more PPE [personal protective equipment]. There’s a level of precision now that should have existed but never did in our previous influenza seasons. So we have something very unique to offer, and we can put people’s minds at rest.”

He spoke of a coming “tsunami of untreated illness.”

“My concern is there is a significant subset of people who are not only eschewing ED care but staying away from their primary care provider. My fear is that we’re not as well aware of this,” he said. “Together with our primary care partners, we have to figure out ways to reach the people who are ignoring illnesses and injuries that they’re making long-term decisions about without realizing it. We have to find a way to reach those people and say it’s okay to reach for care.”

SCCM Immediate Past President Heatherlee Bailey, MD, also sees a problematic looming wave.

“I’m quite concerned about the coming second wave of non-COVID patients who’ve sat home with their worsening renal failure that’s gone from 2 to 5 because they’ve been taking a lot of NSAIDs, or the individual who’s had several TIAs that self-resolved, and we’ve missed an opportunity to prevent some significant disease. At some point they’re going to come back, and we need to figure out how to get these individuals hooked up with care, either through the ED or with their primary care provider, to prevent these potential bad outcomes,” said Dr. Bailey of the Durham (N.C.) Veterans Affairs Medical Center.


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