Study Highlights Emergency On-Call Coverage Crisis in U.S.


Emergency on-call coverage from specialist physicians is “unraveling” at hospitals across the country, resulting in delayed treatment, patient transfers, permanent injuries, and even death, according to a study from the Center for Studying Health System Change, a nonpartisan policy research group in Washington.

While the problem is predominantly an issue for hospital emergency departments, it also is becoming increasingly problematic for inpatients who need urgent specialty care, according to the report. The findings are based on 2007 data from 12 nationally representative communities: Boston; Cleveland; Greenville, S.C.; Indianapolis; Lansing, Mich.; Little Rock, Ark.; Miami; Northern New Jersey; Orange County, Calif; Phoenix; Seattle; and Syracuse, N.Y.

The picture is particularly grim given the fact that overall ED utilization rates have risen by 7% in the past decade, from 36.9 to 39.6 visits per 100 people, according to the report. While insured people account for the vast majority of ED visits, “the proportion of visits by uninsured people is rising at a relatively higher rate,” the study's authors wrote.

Citing a 2006 paper from the American College of Emergency Physicians, the study reported that 73% of emergency departments in the United States report inadequate on-call coverage by specialist physicians. In particularly short supply are orthopedic surgeons, neurosurgeons, plastic surgeons, trauma surgeons, hand surgeons, obstetrician-gynecologists, neurologists, ophthalmologists, and dermatologists. While an actual shortage of such physicians may sometimes be to blame, “physician unwillingness to take call appears to be a more pressing issue for many hospitals,” the study authors stated.

Although unwillingness to accept on-call duty is largely influenced by quality of life issues, the requirement to provide on-call coverage has traditionally been mandated by hospitals under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act. However, many specialists are now shifting their practices away from the hospital setting, and are no longer obligated by medical staff privileges, noted the report's authors.

Many physicians also believe payment for on-call care is inadequate, especially when they are caring for uninsured patients. Specialists are also concerned that providing emergency care may increase their exposure to medical liability and drive up the cost of their malpractice premiums, according to the report.

As a result, adverse patient outcomes are reported. One study found that 21% of patient deaths or permanent injuries related to ED treatment delays are attributed to lack of specialists' availability, noted the report. Complete lack of access to specialty care in some EDs is forcing either travel or transfer of patients. And for the physicians who continue to provide on-call coverage, increasing workload and decreasing morale may put patients further at risk.

“It's not a surprise that we're having this problem—it's a surprise to me that we have any on-call specialists at all,” Dr. Todd Taylor, previously an emergency physician and speaker for the ACEP Council, said in an interview. Dr. Taylor left clinical medicine last summer to work in the computer industry, he said, because the risks of liability were more than he could justify.

For Dr. Taylor, it is these very liability risks that are at the root of the current on-call crisis. “The liability issue has become the overriding barrier to physicians being willing to put themselves at risk,” he said. “Until and unless you solve the liability crisis in emergency care and health care in general, nothing else you do matters.”

More troubling than the lack of emergency on-call specialists, he added, is the lack of emergency physicians in general—a newer phenomenon reported earlier this year in the 2007 Daniel Stern & Associates Emergency Medicine Compensation and Benefits Survey. “This has applied to on-call specialists for years, but the phenomenon is now spreading to core emergency physicians, who are increasingly seeking alternative careers,” Dr. Taylor said.

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