Hospitals Adapt ERs To Meet Patient Demand For Routine Care

Katherine Streeter for NPRi

Katherine Streeter for NPR

When it’s time for medical care, where do you go? The doctor’s office? An urgent care clinic? Or the nearest hospital?

As many as 1 in 3 Americans sought care in an ER in the past two years, according to a recent poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. That relatively high frequency may be a matter of convenience, even though many in the poll also report frustration with the cost and quality of care they received in an ER.

Skipper Beck, for instance, who lives in Holiday, Fla., near Tampa, wasn’t crazy about the care he got. As he remembers it, he was having a great Friday, playing beach football on Florida’s Gulf Coast, when he hurt himself.

“I hit someone a little too hard, a little bit too low,” says Beck, who is 36 years old.

By that evening, Beck couldn’t rotate his shoulder. It was painful to lift any weight, he says. He thought maybe he’d dislocated the shoulder, fractured it, or maybe torn something. So, late that night, he headed to the ER.

The medical staff ran tests, put him in a sling and sent him on his way – 4 1/2 hours later. “Honesty I felt like cattle,” he says. “Kind of ‘get me in, get me out.’ “

Beck thinks the cost for his ER visit was unreasonable, and he felt like the doctors didn’t care about him. In fact, about a quarter of the people NPR polled in Florida say the ER care they got was fair or poor, and only a third say it was excellent.

The relatively high cost and no-frills treatment in traditional emergency departments may be because most ERs are designed to treat life or death emergencies — gunshots, a heart attack, a bad car accident.

But 47 percent of recent patients in the U.S. say they seek care in an ER for

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