Coney Island Hospital Emergency Room
Mario Tama  /  Getty Images file
Lizette Samuels holds her daughter, Starasia Platt, 5, who is being treated for an asthma attack in the emergency room at Coney Island Hospital on Oct. 11 in Brooklyn, N.Y.
updated 5/26/2005 9:15:58 PM ET 2005-05-27T01:15:58

Emergency rooms in the United States are more crowded than ever.

At a time when the number of hospital emergency departments has been cut by 14 percent, visits to the ER reached a record high of nearly 114 million, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data for 2003, the most recent data available.

During the same time period, the U.S. population rose 12 percent and the 65-and-over population rose 9.6 percent.

Many of the ER visits were made by elderly Americans or the uninsured.

ER visits by Americans over age 65 jumped 26 percent in 2003, and Medicaid patients were four times more likely to seek treatment in an ER than people with private insurance.

Meanwhile, nursing home residents aged 65-74 were five times more likely to visit an ER than senior citizens who were not institutionalized.

'A safety net'
"Emergency departments are a safety net and often the place of first resort for health care for America's poor and uninsured, Linda McCaig of the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics said in a statement.

About 45 million people, or 15.6 percent of Americans, did not have any health insurance in 2003, according to estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Stomach and chest pain, fever and cough were the leading patient complaints, accounting for nearly one-fifth of visits in 2003. About 14 percent of visits were injury-related. Falls or being hit by a motor vehicle made up 35 percent of visits to the ER.

Over 16 million, or 14 percent, of patients arrived by ambulance. More than a third of the arrivals by ambulance were patients over age 65.

Despite increased visits, the wait time to see a doctor was unchanged since 2000, averaging 46.5 minutes. Overall, visitors spent an average of 3.2 hours in the ER.

A recent government report indicated that overcrowding is occurring in some ERs, including increases in the number of people who leave the ER before seeing a doctor because they get tired of waiting.

Other statistics include:

  • The number of adults aged 22-49 who visited an ER increased 19 percent. ER visits by Americans aged 50-64 grew 15 percent.
  • About 58 percent of ERs are located in metropolitan areas, but they accounted for 82 percent of visits.
  • X-rays, CT scans or other imaging tests were provided in about 43 percent of visits. Patients received medication over 77 percent of the time, with painkillers the most frequently prescribed drugs.
  • Over 2 million patients were transferred to other facilities, while 317,000 patients were dead on arrival or died in the ER.
  • Some 1.7 million visits were for adverse effects of medical treatment.

The information in the CDC report is based on data from the 2003 National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey Emergency Department Summary.

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