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Hospitals ease ER crowding by putting patients in halls
CHICAGO — There's no phone and no television. Only a screen offers privacy. But heart patient Edward Gray understands why the hospital put him in a cardiac unit hallway.
"They sent me up here to make room for other emergency patients," Gray, 78, said last week from his bed in the hall of a New York area hospital. "This is the way things are in hospitals."
It may not sound like ideal health care, but hospital officials nationwide are being urged to consider hallway medicine as a way to ease emergency department crowding, and some are trying it.
Leading the way is Stony Brook University Medical Center in Stony Brook, N.Y., where a study found that no harm was caused by moving emergency room patients to upper-floor hallways when they were ready for admission.
The study's lead author says all hospitals should look at the program's success.
"This is yet another battle cry for hospitals to get off their duffs and stop stacking people knee deep in the emergency department," said Dr. Peter Viccellio, who is clinical director of the hospital's emergency department.
He is to present the study's findings Tuesday at a meeting of the American College of Emergency Physicians in Chicago.
Crowding is a hospital-wide problem that has been handed off to emergency departments, Viccellio said. His idea hands the problem back to the entire hospital.
Before the change, when his hospital filled up, patients were admitted but held in the ER in a common practice called boarding. On busy days, "things would grind to a halt and people would wait to be seen," Viccellio said. Infectious patients would wait in the ER's hallway for isolation rooms to open up elsewhere in the hospital.
Mortality rate goes down
Holding patients in ERs can cause deaths, doctors say. In a 2007 survey of nearly 1,500 emergency doctors, 13 percent said they personally experienced a patient dying as a result of boarding in the emergency department. The survey was conducted by the American College of Emergency Physicians.
The new study found slightly fewer deaths and intensive care unit admissions in the hallway patients compared to the standard bed patients. That was no surprise, Viccellio said, because the protocol calls for giving the first available rooms to the sickest patients. Intensive care patients never go to hallways.
The study is based on four years of Stony Brook's experience with more than 2,000 patients admitted to hallways from the ER.
Other hospitals resist the idea, doctors say. Dr. Michael Carius, who heads the emergency department at Norwalk Hospital in Norwalk, Conn., would like it adopted at his hospital. But nurses and government regulators have resisted, citing safety issues, "as though the emergency department hallway is a safer environment," he said in frustration.
"When you're full of admitted patients, you're no longer an emergency department, you're just a holding area," Carius said.
In Texas, all it took to convince nurses at Harris Methodist Fort Worth Hospital was a tour of the ER, said Barbara VanWart, emergency nurse manager.
"They could see the problem and help us make things happen because now it's before their eyes," VanWart said. The hospital started its hallway protocol in 2005.
Dr. Kirk Jensen of the not-for-profit Institute for Healthcare Improvement in Cambridge, Mass., said the best reason to adopt the concept is the way it gets the whole hospital involved in finding rooms more quickly for admitted patients.
"It's out of sight, out of mind, even if they know that patients are there in the emergency department," Jensen said. With patients in their own hallways, "they get a lot more creative and aggressive with workflow practices."
Noticed by nurses
When Stony Brook began the hallway practice, the staff noticed "the miracle of the elevator," said Carolyn Santora, who heads the hospital's patient safety efforts. Somehow, rooms became available by the time hallway-bound emergency patients made it upstairs, she said.
Nurses hate seeing patients in their hallways, Santora said, and that's fine with her.
"I want them to hate it. I want them to do everything to expedite flow to get the patient out of hallway."
Gray, the hallway patient at Stony Brook, came to the ER with chest pains and was stabilized before being sent upstairs. He is a retired nurse and said hospital crowding deserves attention from lawmakers.
"I wish the $700 billion went for hospitals, roads and bridges and not to bail out those folks on Wall Street," he said.