Rising Pressure: Hospital Emergency Departments as Barometers of the Health Care System

Publication Date: November 2005

Publisher: Center for Studying Health System Change

Author(s): Ann S. O'Malley; Anneliese M. Gerland; Hoangmai H. Pham

Research Area: Health

Type: Brief


Pressures—ranging from persuading specialists to provide on-call coverage to dealing with growing numbers of patients with serious mental illness—are building in already-crowded hospital emergency departments (EDs) across the country, according to findings from the Center for Studying Health System Change’s (HSC) 2005 site visits to 12 nationally representative communities. As the number of ED visits rises significantly faster than population growth, many hospitals are expanding emergency department capacity. At the same time, hospitals face an ongoing nursing shortage, contributing to tight inpatient capacity that in turn hinders admitting ED patients. In their role as hospitals’ “front door” for attracting insured inpatient admissions, emergency departments also increasingly are expected to help hospitals compete for insured patients while still meeting obligations to provide emergency care to all-comers under federal law. Failure to address these growing pressures may compromise access to emergency care for patients and spur already rapidly rising health care costs.