Hospital Emergency Rooms Reflect Health Care Problems

Article excerpt

One way to scratch beneath the surface of conflicting claims about health care in the United Sates - whether the system is flawed or functioning well, for example - is to take a closer look at what's happening inside hospital emergency rooms.

Overall, it's hardly a pretty picture. In fact, the view in certain parts of the country may even shock some people. Unfortunately, it may get worse before it gets any better.

Through large urban centers, it appears, emergency rooms are running over with patients who wait hours for attention; the costs are burdensome to hospital management, forcing many to the brink of bankruptcy; and the constant pressure is a drain on manpower.

A survey by the American College of Emergency Physicians found serious overcrowding in 41 states, with the problem most acute in the northeast and the west coast. Oklahoma may have its share of the misery, but it isn't out of hand here yet.

St. Anthony Hospital has one of the state's busiest emergency rooms, if not the busiest.

Vice President Greg Terrell said the patient load has held fairly steady at an estimated 20,000 a year during the past five years. Although emergency room traffic has been stable, St. Anthony's management is well aware that its emergency room is "the source of a lot of uncompensated care."

Translated: It's costing us a bundle.

The 1990 budget calls for an estimated outlay of more than $1 million. Of that, said Terrell, 60 percent is salary-related.

He acknowledges that people often show up without money or the means to pay, seeking medical help in the emergency room. In many cases, the patients are transients. In these times, moreover, many come in feigning injury or illness, hoping to get drugs.

"It's not a huge problem, but it's there," said Terrell. It happens at least once a day."

St. Anthony staffs its emergency room with 21 nurses and four fulltime physicians who are under contract and work only there. …