Five-hour waiting lines at Valley hospital emergency rooms are frustrating and downright frightening to someone who doesn’t know if that vague, nagging pain is some inconsequential swelling or a biological time-bomb just about to explode.
In a two-part special report this week, the Tribune’s Mary K. Reinhart has profiled our emergency room woes and the complex factors that have created them. Part of the problem, of course, is too many people with vague, nagging pain are coming to hospital ERs because they don’t have their own doctor or a medical clinic to visit instead. This practice can be blamed on a general shortage of doctors and nurses, a medical and insurance-payment system strangled by government red tape and a lack of education about the proper role of emergency rooms.
But Reinhart also reported on how the actual operation of emergency rooms and their relationship to the rest of the hospital are contributing heavily to the situation. Emergency rooms aren’t equipped to easily identify and separate the everyday aches and chills, get those patients some medical advice, and send them on their way — to home or a family doctor.
Hospitals don’t have enough admission beds available for the more seriously ill to free up space in the emergency room. Physician specialists, worried about the escalating cost of malpractice claims, are avoiding emergency rooms altogether.
State and federal officials have been studying the question of crowded emergency rooms for years, and coming up with relatively few answers, Reinhart reported. But hospitals and other medical experts are finally acting on their own initiative after one East Valley hospital took the unprecedented step of closing its emergency room for three hours on New Year’s Day. A new hospital in Gilbert is devoting itself primarily to emergency care. Six hospitals owned by Banner Health are testing new procedures that show promise of reducing wait times.
But there’s plenty more to be done. Arizona needs to bring a new university medical school in Phoenix to full operation and should support private alternatives that could train more doctors and nurses. And Gov. Janet Napolitano should reconsider her veto of a bill last year that would have made it harder for patients to successfully sue for malpractice. A task force she appointed to deflect criticism of that veto has recommended such a reversal.
The waiting is still going to be long at Valley emergency rooms this winter, so the frustration will continue. But there’s a glimmer of hope that future visits to the ER could be less traumatic for many.