At a recent health system retreat, the CFO shared data describing a trend we’ve observed at a number of systems: for the past few months, emergency department (ED) volumes have been up, but the percentage of patients admitted through the ED is precipitously down.
The CFO walked to through a run of data to diagnose possible causes of this “uncoupling” of ED visits and inpatient admissions. Overall, the severity of patients coming to the ED was higher compared to 2019, so it didn’t appear that the ED was being flooded with low-level cases that didn’t merit admission. Apart from the recent spike in respiratory illness brought on by the “tripledemic” of flu, COVID and RSV, there wasn’t a noteworthy change in case mix, or the types of patients and conditions being evaluated in the emergency room. (Fewer COVID patients were admitted compared to 2021, but that wasn’t enough to account for the decline.) The physicians staffing the ED hadn’t changed, so a shift in practice patterns was also unlikely.
A physician leader attending the retreat spoke up from the audience: “I can diagnose this for you. I work in the ED, and the problem is we can’t move them. Patients are sitting in the ED, in hallways, in observation, sometimes for days, because we can’t get a bed on the floor. The whole time we are treating them, and many of them get better, and we’re able to discharge them before a bed frees up.”
With nursing shortages and other staffing challenges, many hospitals have been unable to run at full capacity even if the demand for beds is there. So total admissions may be down, even if the hospital feels like it’s bursting at the seams.
The current staffing crisis not only presents a business challenge, but also adversely impacts patient experience, and makes it more difficult to deliver the highest quality care. A good reminder of the complexity of hospital operations, where strain in one part of the system will quickly impact the performance of other parts of the care delivery continuum.