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ER overcrowding may increase harm to patients, study finds

It seems fairly obvious that when emergency rooms are overcrowded to the point that patients are turned away or have to wait several hours to be seen, those patients may suffer additional harm as a result of that overcrowding. Now, a study has confirmed that increased risk.

After an analysis of nearly one million emergency room visits to 187 different hospitals in 2007, researchers found that patients who were turned away from emergency rooms had a greater risk of death than patients who were admitted to the hospital at a less-busy time. In addition, those patients tend to stay at the hospital for a longer period of time and pay more for their medical treatment.

In sum, less than 25 percent of the days on which the ER visits took place were so busy that ambulances carrying patients had to be diverted to other medical centers. Those diversions lasted for a median of seven hours.

Specifically, researchers found that diverted patients had a 5 percent higher likelihood of dying in the hospital, a 0.8 percent longer length of hospital stay and 1 percent increased medical costs.

However, the researchers state that the results of their research may not be completely accurate. This, they say, is because some hospitals request that ambulances be diverted only in very rare situations, and the results may not, therefore, reflect the real harm experienced by individual patients. As such, the researchers believe that the negative effects of emergency room crowding may actually be more severe than the estimates they reported in their report.

Source: MedPage Today, "Crowded EDs May Be Serious Health Hazard," Crystal Phend, Dec. 12, 2012

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