ER patients have grown sicker
“We are hearing from members in every part of the country,” said Dr. Lisa Moreno, president of the American Academy of Emergency Medicine. “The Midwest, the South, the Northeast, the West … they are seeing this exact same phenomenon.”
Although the number of ER visits returned to pre-COVID levels this summer, admission rates, from the ER to the hospital’s inpatient floors, are still almost 20% higher. That’s according to the most recent analysis by the Epic Health Research Network, which pulls data from more than 120 million patients across the country.
“It’s an early indicator that what’s happening in the ED is that we’re seeing more acute cases than we were pre-pandemic,” said Caleb Cox, a data scientist at Epic.
Less acute cases, such as people with health issues like rashes or conjunctivitis, still aren’t going to the ER as much as they used to. Instead, they may be opting for an urgent care center or their primary care doctor, Mr. Cox explained. Meanwhile, there has been an increase in people coming to the ER with more serious conditions, like strokes and heart attacks.
So, even though the total number of patients coming to ERs is about the same as before the pandemic, “that’s absolutely going to feel like [if I’m an ER doctor or nurse] I’m seeing more patients and I’m seeing more acute patients,” Mr. Cox said.
Dr. Moreno, the AAEM president, works at an emergency department in New Orleans. She said the level of illness, and the inability to admit patients quickly and move them to beds upstairs, has created a level of chaos she described as “not even humane.”
At the beginning of a recent shift, she heard a patient crying nearby and went to investigate. It was a paraplegic man who’d recently had surgery for colon cancer. His large post-operative wound was sealed with a device called a wound vac, which pulls fluid from the wound into a drainage tube attached to a portable vacuum pump.
But the wound vac had malfunctioned, which is why he had come to the ER. Staffers were so busy, however, that by the time Dr. Moreno came in, the fluid from his wound was leaking everywhere.
“When I went in, the bed was covered,” she recalled. “I mean, he was lying in a puddle of secretions from this wound. And he was crying, because he said to me, ‘I’m paralyzed. I can’t move to get away from all these secretions, and I know I’m going to end up getting an infection. I know I’m going to end up getting an ulcer. I’ve been laying in this for, like, eight or nine hours.’”
The nurse in charge of his care told Dr. Moreno she simply hadn’t had time to help this patient yet. “She said, ‘I’ve had so many patients to take care of, and so many critical patients. I started [an IV] drip on this person. This person is on a cardiac monitor. I just didn’t have time to get in there.’”
“This is not humane care,” Dr. Moreno said. “This is horrible care.”
But it’s what can happen when emergency department staffers don’t have the resources they need to deal with the onslaught of competing demands.
“All the nurses and doctors had the highest level of intent to do the right thing for the person,” Dr. Moreno said. “But because of the high acuity of … a large number of patients, the staffing ratio of nurse to patient, even the staffing ratio of doctor to patient, this guy did not get the care that he deserved to get, just as a human being.”
The instance of unintended neglect that Dr. Moreno saw is extreme, and not the experience of most patients who arrive at ERs these days. But the problem is not new: Even before the pandemic, ER overcrowding had been a “widespread problem and a source of patient harm, according to a recent commentary in NEJM Catalyst Innovations in Care Delivery.
“ED crowding is not an issue of inconvenience,” the authors wrote. “There is incontrovertible evidence that ED crowding leads to significant patient harm, including morbidity and mortality related to consequential delays of treatment for both high- and low-acuity patients.”
And already-overwhelmed staffers are burning out.