Does a Visit to the ER Represent a Failure of the Health Care System?
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Is this an indication of the failure of the health care system?

In a widely read article in the January 2011 issue of The New Yorker by Atul Gawande that details the efforts of Dr. Jeffrey Brenner to improve care to a number of high-cost patients in Camden, NJ; Dr. Brenner was quoted as saying “Emergency-room visits and hospital admissions should be considered failures of the health-care system until proven otherwise.”   This observation has often been quoted by any number of health care policy wonks, health plan advocates, and politicians in efforts to justify their particular distaste for ‘unnecessary’ ER care.  Like many such generalizations, Dr. Brenner’s comments are often taken out of context or misinterpreted, and in some cases have been used to denigrate the care provided in ERs, or the patients that rely on the ER.  Dr. Brenner was referring to “failures of prevention and of timely, effective care” in the rest of the health care system, and I cannot disagree with him that ERs are often called upon to address these failures.  Nonetheless, my antipathy for Dr. Brenner’s observation is that it is glib, and too easy to misconstrue.

Emergency Departments provide such a broad scope of services, and play so many roles in health care, that it is rather short-sighted to view ER visits as the if they were almost inevitably the result of misuse, abuse, inattention, inappropriate delay, or a failure of prevention.   If someone falls off a ladder and breaks their leg, that obviously is not a failure of the health care system, unless of course you plan to hold the health care system responsible for poor ladder design.  Likewise, not all heart attacks or strokes can be prevented by good primary care, Lipitor, aspirin, and exercise; and not all pneumonias represent a failure to immunize or prescribe controller inhalers for asthma.  The reasons why the number of ER visits have grown so rapidly go way beyond the fact that the health care system often fails us; or that the ER is open 24/7; or the EMTALA mandate to treat everyone regardless of insurance status or ability to pay.

ERs have become the diagnostic centers of the health care system; and many patients are sent to the ER by their doctor specifically because of the broad array of diagnostic services available, ER physician expertise as ‘diagnosticologists’, the ready availability of specialist expertise, and the efficiency of ER workups.  It would not surprise me if more than a third of all cancers in the chest and abdomen are first detected in the course of an ER visit.  In addition, the ER fills many roles that, if they had to be met by other health care providers and venues, would render those providers or venues overwhelmed, even more inefficient, and often just unavailable.  Imagine if primary care doctors, or even urgent care centers, had to repair all lacerations, or treat all kidney stones, or manage every alcoholic who drank himself into a stupor.  Think what it would cost if those offices and facilities had to stay open until 2 am to accommodate those who were not able to get their care during office hours.  You don’t have to imagine closing every ER in the country to realize that ER care is not just some regrettable but necessary safety net established to manage the failures of the health care system.  Just watch what happens when the last ER in a community closes:  you will find that ERs represent what is often the best of what the health care system offers: timeliness, efficiency, effectiveness, scope, availability, responsiveness, surge capacity, compassion, and decisiveness; and this will be sorely missed by the residents of that community.

The tendency of many to misconstrue comments like those of Dr. Brenner is reflected in a host of similar aspersions cast on the ER.  Jane Stevens also wrote an article about Dr. Brenner, and about a similar effort to reduce costs through an ER diversion program in Bend, Oregon, designed to help patients who frequently landed on the doorstep of the ER to get access to other, more appropriate places to get the things they needed, some health care related, but often focused on social service needs.  The title of this article was “Improve health, lower health care costs by reducing emergency room visits”, implying that simply by blocking the door to our ERs, we could solve what is wrong with health care.  At least, this is how many readers were likely to interpret the message.  Taken to an extreme, this is the kind of message that leads policy makers and legislators to believe that if they just stopped paying for ER visits, they could keep everyone healthy AND solve their budget crises.

Dr. Brenner’s linkage of ER visits to failure has also become insinuated into even the most thoughtful discussions about health care reform.  Brad Wright wrote a post in the Kevin MD blog that pointed out the mistaken belief by many that universal health insurance would lead to a reduction in ER use.  He noted that “people go to the emergency room for a host of reasons that have nothing to do with their insurance status.  Among these reasons are low health literacy, a health care system that is often complicated to navigate and inaccessible for people who can’t get off work during typical business hours, and a lack of continuity of care that arises for a host of reasons. Waiting to be seen in the ER is no picnic, but for many people it is a more easily understood process than trying to get a referral to a specialist from their primary care physician–assuming they even have one.”  As I have noted above, this accounts for just a fraction of the reasons why patients use the ER.  Mr. Wright notes that consequently, reduced ER use should NOT be considered a measure of the success of health reform.

I believe that ER use is an indicator of many things, some reflecting the failures of our health care system and our social safety net; others reflecting great advances in acute care, resuscitation, and diagnostic services; and still others reflecting our society’s need for, and desire for, efficiency, availability, and timeliness of care.  You can’t hope to cover all of these attributes in a single, facile observation, no matter how well intended.

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2 Responses to Does a Visit to the ER Represent a Failure of the Health Care System?

  1. Having worked in ER, urgent care and primary care, I was amazed how much more effective I could be in primary care, where I actually knew the patients. Histories were known, the effects of treatment strategies could be evaluated, and frequently rapport could be developed and the patient educated and motivated to make positive changes in lifestyle. Of course some primary care offices are booked up for weeks, so completely unusable when conditions change. I always left time available to see walk-ins as well as appointments. It’s not rocket science.

    Most of my colleagues just say anyone who comes to the ER without a knife sticking out of them is abusing the system. But suggest to them that we provide a universal system so anyone can see a family doctor when they need to and they scream bloody murder. Almost all the patients I met, given the choice of seeing a family doctor they knew well, if necessary on short notice, would be happy to do so unless they faced an unaffordable co-pay designed specifically as a barrier to care. Of course there are very few doctors who understand that to many people $20 really means they cannot pay the rent.

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