Posts Tagged emergency room

The Emergency Room — high cost of care

ER signPeople go the the ER but often do not get admitted to the hospital.  Why does this happen?  Do they think the problem is an emergency or do they just not have access to other health care?  The CDC presented the following data from 2011:
ER_1 ER_2 ER_3

(note respondents could answer yes to multiple items)

The bottom line:  people who go to the ER but do not get admitted do so because they think the problem is serious, but 80% also say they lack access to other providers.

Social factors often force the ER visit:

  • No primary care provider has been established
  • Primary care does not have enough walk-in capacity
  • In rural communities once the few primary care offices close there is no other alternative
  • Work hours force evening or night care for family members
  • ER is closer than other options
  • ER is more willing to see someone without insurance
  • Patients seek continuity of care once they have been seen at the ER — they return.

A not uncommon scenario is when a single parent picks up a child from day care only to find they are sick but doctor’s offices are closed.  And, the parent is expected back at work early in the morning.

Possible solutions:

  • Encourage urgent care or “community ER” clinics.  In many larger cities doctors or hospitals have opened urgent care clinics — they are not intended to provide continuity of care but just service when needed.  In the UK such clinics are often staffed by nurse practitioners.
  • Assign one provider in a primary care office to walk-in duty — thus increasing the capacity for unscheduled visits and allowing the other providers uninterrupted time to see scheduled patients.
  • Locate some primary care clinics with extended hours next to the ER.  The patients can see a primary care provider at a lower cost — but if the problem really is critical the ER is next door.
  • Use the phone more.  Also, use Skype since it is encrypted and should meet HIPPA guidelines.  Cost would be lower for everyone if health care providers made better use of technology.  Accountable care organizations (with less fee for service incentive) should find the lower cost aspect very attractive.
  • Provide more mobile care.  Some enterprising ambulance services provide service on location and don’t actually transport the patient to the ER.  Unfortunately, the overhead cost is rather high — but the same can be said for the ER in general.  It’s like the guy who comes to your driveway to replace a car windshield.  Instead, you might get a laceration sutured in your kitchen!  Or your child with a sore throat could be checked with a strep-screen.

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Urinary Retention — 1 in 10 men over 70

urologybillboardOne ER visit is a red flag — more ER visits for the same problem become an example of  poor quality health care.

Urinary difficulty is something older men don’t like to talk about.  But, 1 in 10 men over the age of 70 will end up in the emergency room with urinary retention — an uncomfortable situation where they can not pass urine.  Urologists are aware of this frequent problem — see the billboard story.  It is a serious problem;  in third world countries it may be fatal.

The usual cause is enlargement of the prostate preceded by symptoms of slow and frequent urination.   Sometimes there are few symptoms until a painful inability to pass urine forces a rush to the emergency room.

The usual medical approach is to insert a tube (a catheter) into the bladder to relieve the pressure, start a medication to help urination, and 3 days later to remove the catheter.  50% of men can then pass urine adequately (for a while).  The quality issue is that 50% have a recurrence within a week — so is another ER visit the answer?

A friend of this blogger landed in the ER a total of 4 times with urinary retention.  Why is the ER the center of after-hours treatment for this problem — once identified as an issue why is the health care system making it a recurring emergency?

The solution is Urologists need to own the problem and provide adequate patient care 24 hours a day once a catheter is removed.  Yes, own the problem, not turn off the phone and let the ER solve it.  Does that mean the urologist must be at the clinic 24 hours a day?  No, but there must be an arrangement for immediate care — no waiting in the ER, no ER charges, no secondary consultations.  An arrangement with a 24 hour urgent care center may be enough but some back-up plan and patient education are essential.

The majority of men with urinary retention end up having a surgery to ream-out the prostate (TURP).  According to a suburban US urologist makes $500k to $1M each year.  This is another example of the decoupling of cost and quality caused by involving multiple providers with no common financial risk.

A proactive patient who has a catheter removed should ask the urologist “what is the plan if this does not work?”  and “is there some alternative to the ER since you have already evaluated me?”.  At least find out how to get in touch with the on-call urologist!

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Observation Unit — Between ER and Hospital

Laura Landro of the Wall Street Journal reported on a growing trend in US hospitals.  The trend is the “Observation Unit”.  In hockey terms it is the penalty box where hospitals put patients they can’t send home but can’t admit, at least for a few hours.

The origin of this idea may have come from English hospitals.  Those hospitals run at almost 100% occupancy.  So, when a patient from the ER needs to be admitted there is a delay to wait for a room.  Those patients  get put in a big room next to the ER with several gurneys, a few nurses,  and lots of curtains (the observation unit).  The patients do get tests and treatments but they wait for a room.  As it turns out, some of the patients get better and don’t actually get admitted — they go home — the rest eventually go to a hospital room.  In England hospital care is free and the hospitals don’t have to worry about insurance or Medicare rules that separate  outpatient and inpatient charges.

US hospitals have plenty of beds available but US hospitals do have to worry about insurance and Medicare rules.  Care is not free and if a hospital makes a mistake (like admitting for indigestion) they don’t get paid.  And, if a doctor makes a mistake and sends a patient home who should have been admitted (for a heart attack) they could be in legal trouble.  Consequently, unlike the English hospital that needs to hold patients to wait for a bed the US hospitals need to hold patients because of red tape and legal worries!  It’s hard to tell which is worse.

The Wall Street Journal article puts a positive spin on the “new” idea:  “when operated efficiently observation units have been shown to reduce health-care costs and improve treatment”.  Obviously there is a balance of forces between the Hospital that makes money and the insurance company that looses money with each admission.  Regulators try to develop rules to speed evaluation and treatment so some patients can go home safely without a hospital admission and the huge associated costs.  Any patient who can bypass the hospital will also avoid the risk of hospital errors and exposure to hospital acquired infections.

Patients have two main concerns:

1) Getting the right care the first time and not coming back sick.   The unit may provide a little longer time to get test results and see if treatment is working which is good unless unnecessary tests are being done.
2) Minimizing out of pocket cost.  A person without insurance would get a lower bill by avoiding the hospital but having both the cost of observation and hospitalization is a real possibility.   The current trend for insurance  is to shift a higher percent of outpatient charges to the patient compared to inpatient charges.  So, depending on what a person’s insurance covers, there might be higher out of pocket expense for using observation.

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