A few weeks ago around 8 p.m. on Wednesday, I found myself in Temple University Hospital’s emergency room with two roommates and a sick friend. While waiting to see the doctors, a middle-aged woman wandered over to us and asked my friend what she had.
“I looked just like you this morning,” the lady said, referring to my friend’s heavy breathing. She told us her stomach had been hurting for days, which had nothing to do with my friend’s symptoms.
I remained unconvinced of her emergency while watching her wander around the waiting room like she was at a church social, while my friend could barely walk or breathe. The woman’s demeanor suggested she was more in need of attention than medical help, and I found myself becoming annoyed.
“The doctors even told me that I could leave,” she went on, confirming my first impression that little was wrong with her. “And every time I think I’m doing better I get up and my stomach feels a little weird, so I don’t want to leave.”
“A little weird” certainly doesn’t translate into an emergency, but the woman wasn’t finished. She said it was ridiculous that people with emergencies weren’t getting help faster; she had been in the ER since early that morning. The only problem with her argument was that she wasn’t having an emergency, and she was probably the reason that people with real emergencies have to wait so long.
Dr. Robert McNamara, chairman of emergency medicine at Temple Hospital, said that Temple’s emergency room will see anybody who comes in, though those without real emergencies will have to wait fairly long.
“There’s a public misconception there are people who are abusing the emergency room, but from our view as emergency room physicians, that’s very few and far between,” McNamara said. “Most people that come to us think that they potentially have a serious problem … I don’t think anybody consciously wants to go to an ER.”
Some people don’t have anywhere else to go, have limited access to health care, or were told by their family doctor or a clinic to go to the emergency room, McNamara said.
Because of this, Temple’s emergency room nurses screen each walk-in patient and place them into categories – emergent, urgent, non-urgent, fast track – so that people with urgent emergencies are seen first.
The fast track system is fairly new. Patients with routine problems, like toothaches, twisted ankles or cold symptoms are treated here. This helps reduce the amount of people waiting for more extensive care.
“In the ideal system there would be more access to primary care and the ability to have walk-in medical care for less serious complaints,” McNamara said. “Ideally we’d see everybody right away.”
But for Temple that’s impossible for several reasons. Because Temple Hospital serves a large community and isn’t a large hospital, resources are limited, and, like other emergency rooms across the country, it gets backed up. Plus, smaller hospitals without specialized surgeons send their emergency room patients to Temple for certain procedures.
Without additional funding to hospitals and clinics and easier access to health care for Americans, patience and compassion are needed to deal with ER overload.
Morgan Ashenfelter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.