A new study conducted by UC San Francisco sheds light on the reasons for extensive waiting periods in emergency rooms, attributing it primarily to a misalignment between the growing patient demand and the emergency department’s (ED’s) capacity in California over the past ten years.
The researchers found that there was an approximately 4% reduction in the total count of EDs across the state, whereas the frequency of ED visits experienced a 7.4% increase. This comprehensive study marks the first scrutiny of recent trends in emergency medical service utilization in California. Additionally, they disclosed that high-severity visits surged by almost 68%, while the visits for less severe cases dropped by 63%.
“We know that there is overcrowding in the ED,” said lead author Renee Y. Hsia, MD, a UCSF professor of emergency medicine. “Capacity has largely failed to match the rise in patient demand.”
The paper was recently published in the journal JAMA Network Open.
Amid numerous changes in the U.S. healthcare system in recent years, emergency departments (EDs) continue to play a vital role in the system. EDs are required to treat all patients regardless of their ability to pay, and they function as a safety net for uninsured patients, many of whom use the ED for primary care services.
The new study used data from the California Department of Health Care Access and Information and the U.S. Census Bureau from January 1, 2011, to December 31, 2021.
In that time, California’s population grew by 4.2%, but the number of emergency departments in California fell from 339 to 326, while the number of hospital beds decreased by 2.5% (75,940 to 74,052).
“Our findings show what many health care workers already know to be true: the burden on emergency departments across the state of California has intensified over the last 10-15 years,” Hsia said.
“Becoming aware of these trends is the first step to improving emergency department care,” she said. “To efficiently and equitably address ED crowding and improve overall care, policymakers and health care administrators should work to increase ED capacity, while also making thoughtful decisions about where and how to best allocate resources.”
Reference: “Patterns in Patient Encounters and Emergency Department Capacity in California, 2011-2021” by Renee Y. Hsia, Stefany Zagorov, Nandita Sarkar, Michael T. Savides, Madeline Feldmeier and Newton Addo, 22 June 2023, JAMA Network Open.