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Emergency Department Overcrowding Harms Patients

Oregon residents visiting emergency departments may notice that they are busier than they have been in the past. That is because every year more patients are going to emergency rooms. The medical problems the patients are bringing in are also more severe, sometimes caused by a lack of health insurance; some patients will wait until they absolutely must be seen by a physician, allowing their illness to worsen in the meantime. This means diagnosis and treatment take longer.

The result is overcrowding in many emergency departments, harming patients who must wait too long for treatment. For example, between 2001 and 2008, the number of diagnostic tests and other medical interventions in emergency departments rose substantially, making the average visit last about 21 percent longer than in years past.

What Causes ER Overcrowding?

The type of treatment that patients get when they enter an emergency room is one of the biggest reasons for the overcrowding and longer wait times. Procedures such as tomography scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), X-rays and ultrasounds more than doubled throughout this time. These tests all come with added time for both running the test and having a physician analyze the results.

The practice of “defensive medicine” has also contributed to ER wait times. Many physicians and clinics are so fearful of facing allegations of medical malpractice that they will order a litany of tests for what should be a relatively simple diagnosis that, in years past, could have been confirmed with only one or two diagnostic exams.

Lack of access to primary care physicians is also cited as a cause of overcrowding. This can come from both financial resources of the patient and the dearth of qualified primary care physicians in a given area. Communities with long wait times at clinics or doctors’ offices are often found to have higher numbers of emergency department patients.

Grave Consequences of Overcrowding

Overcrowding is more than simply an inconvenience. It is directly linked to a higher number of patient deaths. A 2009 report found that patients whose medical conditions should have been treated within one to 14 minutes after arriving still waited an average of 37 minutes.

Emergency department overcrowding also places more stress on doctors and nurses, who must manage more people at once and split their attention accordingly. They may be expected to handle as many as 30 patients at a time, a number that is staggeringly high. This number rises even further when an emergency department is overcrowded.

A person injured from receiving inadequate care in an emergency department may be entitled to compensation. A skilled medical malpractice attorney can educate injured patients about their legal rights and options.