Study objective: This is a pilot study designed to assess the feasibility of a point prevalence study to assess the degree of crowding in hospital emergency departments (EDs). In addition, we sought to measure the degree of physical crowding and personnel shortage in our sample.
Methods: A mail survey was sent to a random sample of 250 EDs chosen from a database compiled by the American College of Emergency Physicians of 5,064 EDs in the United States. In addition to demographic information, respondents were asked to count the patients and staff in their EDs at 7 PM local time on Monday, March 12, 2001 (index time).
Results: The response rate was 36%. At the index time, there was an average of 1.1 patients per treatment space, and 52% of EDs reported more than 1 patient per treatment space. There was also evidence of personnel shortage, with a mean of 4.2 patients per registered nurse and 49% of EDs having each registered nurse caring for more than 4 patients. There was a mean of 9.7 patients per physician. Sixty-eight percent of EDs had each physician caring for more than 6 patients. There was crowding present in all geographic areas and all hospital types (teaching-nonteaching status of the hospital). Consistent with the crowded conditions, 11% of institutions were on ambulance diversion and not accepting new acute patients. Delays in transfer of admitted patients out of the ED contributed to the physical crowding. Twenty-two percent of patients in the ED were already admitted and were awaiting transfer to an inpatient bed; 73% of EDs were boarding 2 or more inpatients. The amount of crowding quantified by this point prevalence study was confirmed by the amount of crowding reported for the previous week: 48% of EDs were boarding inpatients during the previous week for a mean of 8.9 hours, 4.2 days per week; 31% had been on diversion; 59% had been routinely using their halls for patients; 38% had been doubling their rooms; and 47% had been using nonclinical space for patient care.
Conclusion: Our low response rate limits this pilot study. Nonetheless, this study, as well as others, demonstrates that EDs throughout the United States are severely crowded. Such crowding raises concerns about the ability of EDs to respond to mass casualty or volume surges.