Managing Surges: Triggers in the Emergency Department

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Curing capacity issues in a hospital involves actions ranging from long-term, strategic improvements in matching supply and demand for beds, through to immediate actions to address problems in the here-and-now. However, there are short-term preparedness measures, specifically defining triggers to action, that can mitigate or bypass the disagreements and loss of time in activating responses to census surges. The Emergency Department (ED) is a good place to start.

The ED is often the “canary in the coal mine” for hospital census surges. When the hospital becomes critically full, admitted patients wait hours or even days to be assigned beds, all the while “boarding” in ED stretchers. With stretchers in the ED full, new emergencies cannot be brought in. Meanwhile, the waiting room is full, and patients begin to walk out rather than wait to see the doctor. Ambulance dispatches may officially ask to take new patients to other hospitals in the area (“diversion”), or unofficially do the same thing as they witness the crowding and delays. Research has shown that ED overcrowding is associated with worse clinical outcomes and higher mortality rates for ED patients. ED overcrowding is a failure on all fronts: a failure in the mission to provide care, and failure in quality of care, and a serious financial failure from loss of case volume.

When is the right time to call for help? Doctors and nurses in the ED often say they know overcrowding when they see it, but struggle to have an agreed-upon measure. Hospital and emergency leaders want a measure that is backed by research, and validated so they can understand when overcrowding will lead to walkouts, diversion and delays in care.

But how can one scale represent an inner-city ED with 70 beds seeing 100,000 patients a year, and just as faithfully represent a rural ED with 12 beds and 20,000 patients? Researchers have developed standardized scales used internationally to provide standardized apples-to-apples scales and triggers to action, across EDs of different types and sizes.

NEDOCS  is the most widely used scale. The inputs include 1) Demand: total number of patients in the ED (and waiting room), the number of critical patients (1:1 nursing, on ventilator) 2) Supply: number of ED beds, number of hospital beds 3) Delay measures: boarders, length of stay in the ED, waiting room time.

Other scales include READI (more factoring of acuity, plus provider staffing), EDWIN, EDCS (includes hospital occupancy) and SONET.

There is a lot of debate to be had over which scale is best for a particular ED. However, the most important thing is to start measuring. It is relatively straightforward to measure all five of these scales four times a day. At the same time, get input from the charge nurse and from physicians on whether crowding is impacting patient care, patient experience and the sense of pressure in the work environment. Put these together with walkouts and ambulance diversion and after a month you will have a good idea of which scales can be a trigger for action.

Of course, all these scales have one thing in common – they tell you when the storm has hit. They do not offer a weather forecast. New computer-intensive approaches involving discrete event simulation and machine learning to predict incoming patients, plus a holistic model of patients already in the hospital, can offer several days of advance notice, providing crucial time to fill staffing gaps and address hospital census among other measures.

Finally, hospital crowding is not only about the ED, and there are triggers for action that should also be considered that have nothing to do with the ED. More on that soon.

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