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Emerg Med (Fremantle). 2003 Feb;15(1):22-7.

Hospital and emergency department crowding in the United States.

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Department of Emergency Medicine, Carolinas Medical Center, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA.


Every emergency physician in the United States and, for that matter, in many countries around the world recognizes that the demand for timely access to quality emergency care is one that patients highly value. Unfortunately, hospitals in the USA have become stretched beyond capacity, resulting in overloaded emergency departments, diverted ambulances, and greater risks for patients and providers. Some of the causes and consequences of emergency department crowding are unique to the USA health care system, while others are common to countries throughout the world. The goals for this paper are to provide a brief overview of hospital and emergency department crowding in the USA, to identify commonly cited causes of the problem, and to outline future directions in the search for solutions. A large number of hospitals, inpatient beds, and emergency departments have closed during the past 10 years in the USA. In 1992 there were around 6000 hospitals with emergency departments and there are now less than 4000. While hospitals scrambled to decrease an excess supply of inpatient beds, the demand for emergency department care steadily rose. Between 1992 and 2000, the annual number of emergency department visits in the USA increased from 89.8 to 108 million. While some areas of the USA have been affected more seriously than others (particularly the coasts), almost every state has reported problems with boarding of inpatients in the emergency department. Inpatient boarding is the most frequently cited reason for emergency department crowding within the emergency medicine community. United States hospitals are also struggling with a shortage of health care professionals, particularly registered nurses. There are several policy issues that must be addressed to alleviate hospital and emergency department crowding over the long term. We list these as 'long-term' goals simply because policy changes, in the USA, are often incremental and rarely occur quickly. In order to achieve any of these changes in policy over the long term, advocates for reform must aggressively pursue them today.

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