Overcrowding in Emergency Rooms and Telephone Triage

Crowding in an emergency room is as it sounds: the ER is crowded with too many patients. Common causes include: 

  • Increased number of uninsured that are waiting longer to seek medical care, and are sicker when they seek care, requiring more medical care
  • Increase in population
  • Reduction in the number of ERs
  • An aging population that requires more health care resources
  • A decreased number of inpatient hospital beds

Slate.com says it's the allure of the one-stop shop that leads to ERs crowded with people who shouldn't be there. And medical weblog KevinMD.com suggests that overcrowding is due, in part, to the fact that primary physicians have little incentive not to suggest their patients go to the ER. 

Regardless of the cause, the statistics speak for themselves. Government statistics showing that the number of annual visits to emergency rooms jumped to a record high of 119.2 million in 2006 - up from 115 in 2005. There is now an average of 227 visits per minute to emergency rooms across the country.

The statistics also show that from 1996 to 2006, the number of emergency patient visits rose from 90.3 million to 119.2 million - an increase of 32 percent or an average annual increase of nearly 3 million visits per year. At the same time, the number of ERs across the nation decreased from 4,109 to 3,833.   Many of these visits were unnecessary.  Often those with no insurance or those with no PCP visit the ER for non-urgent care because they don't know any better.    

In short, the number of people seeking emergency medical care shot up while emergency rooms across the country closed. As a result, the remaining ERs are becoming more and more crowded as an already overwhelmed system tries to handle the demand.

A Nurse triage service can help to alleviate overcrowding by directing a patient to the appropriate level of care.   When a patient feels the need to visit an emergency room they should contact their local nurse advice line and speak with a registered nurse who can assess their condition and advise the patient when they should be seen.  If the patient doesn't have a physician the nurse advice line can usually refer the patient to a physician and make an appointment for the next day. 

In Illinois and Indiana CareLink is a free health advice and nurse triage line.  CareLink has registered nurses available 24 hours.  If you don't have a physician CareLink can refer you to one and even make an appointment for you.  If you feel ill or need medical advice you can call CareLink rather than sit in an ER for up to 5 or more hours and a CareLink nurse will help you decide what you need to do. 

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