Bring It On

Hello, GruntDoc readers! This is my first guest-blogging stint, but I’m a big fan in general of neighborly community behavior. We have friends pick up the mail for you when you’re away, maybe feed the cat, so why not maintain the online presence, as well?

Especially when the online presence is that of GruntDoc, who’s been a dedicated supporter of medical blogging in all its forms, including Grand Rounds (he is a three-time host, I interviewed him once for Medscape). GruntDoc has also been a source of tips and commentary to MedGadget, another blog I contribute to (in fact, when we got the tip about this cricothryroidotomy keychain, I immediately thought of him).

GruntDoc encouraged me to rant during my stint here — I think he’s trying to keep things lively, or maybe he knows how much I have to reign it in usually, as an intern blogging under my real name.

I’m not sure this is a rant, but I do want to address Symtym’s assertions on what’s really an emergency. He quotes a figure I’ve heard, and verified — 100 million visits to US Emergency Departments each year (I’m getting numbers from Richardson AEM Vol 40, p 388).

100 million A huge number, to be sure, especially given the US population of 300 million. So it’s easy to say we’re in crisis now, everything is an emergency, forces have conspired to make people think they should use the ED for hangnails and stuffy noses. right? guess Well, guess how many visits were logged fifteen years ago: 90 million.

OK, now maybe there was wild misuse of emergency services in the early 90’s, too (I wouldn’t really know,  I was in high school). It seems, though, that the problem isn’t that there are more people using ED’s  inappropriately, or at least, this isn’t a terribly new issue. Rather, it’s that there are fewer ED’s around, so we’re all feeling the crunch more.

As for those 100 million visits, does that really mean that one third of all americans go to the ER each year? Of course not. Me and my two friends sure don’t, least not yet this year. Meanwhile, I can personanly vouch that some of our "regulars" chronic homeless alcoholics use the ED 100 times a year. How big a problem is this? I’ve blogged about it before, it’s a big problem and accounts for a substantial fraction of ED expenditures.

What about all the 70-year old diabetic hypertensives with chest pain? They come in every three or four months with disturbing symptoms. The 80-year olds who feel week and dizzy, maybe they blacked out for a second. These are real complaints, real emergencies, they need workup, every time. 

As for the hangnails, the inappropriate use of ED services, it’s actually notoriously hard to calculate how many are seen inappropriately. People have tried (Richardson, again — maybe I’ve worked with her, once or twice). The bottom line is, it’s hard to measure inappropriate ED use, and efforts to deny care to non-emergent situations may end up costing more, and/ or causing bad outcomes. Researchers try to quantify it, but existing denial of care methods just don’t seem to be worth it, and the estimated savings may be exaggerated as well.   

You can blame "themes of entitlement" and whatnot, and I’ve found doing so provides some comfort when you’re stressed and feeling put-upon by those few demanding, unappreciative patients. But, when you really look at it, it’s hard to blame the patients.

And, you know, as an intern, I’m going to get paid the same living wage whether I see a dozen patients a shift, or two dozen. But I keep trying to move quickly, providing good care and pleasant bedside manner, because I want to see as much as I can, and I’d like patients to get a favorable impression of our hospital and ED. If they end up realizing that we, in the ED, can provide services faster and more completely than if they just showed up unscheduled to their primary care doc, well, good for us.

Look, I’m not trying to debate ED access or government incentives to waste — that argument sprouts up every few weeks on the blogosphere and there’s already a good iteration / continuation in progress over at Grahamazon. I’m just trying to, well, figure out the right mindset and perspective to approach my job, and avoid becoming as jaded, down the road, as some others appear to have become.

– Nick