Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Emergency services, COVID, and the health system: Your life could well be at risk

I recently had a very unpleasant health event, involving severe abdominal pain for most of a day and night, and many days of recovery. The details of my specific condition are not particularly important, other than to say it is a chronic, recurrent problem, resulting from an event decades ago; it could well need emergency surgery and can have serious results. The point is that I had to decide whether to go to the emergency room that night, and to discuss the issues, both personal and structural, that impacted that decision, and what it demonstrates about our healthcare system, made even worse by the stress of COVID.

Considerations on the side of “go to the ER” were 1) I was in a lot of pain that was lasting longer than it generally has (say twice a year), and wanted to not be, 2) I knew pretty well what was causing it and that, while it had happened before and usually resolved, it could also NOT get better and maybe require emergency surgery, or worse. Considerations on the side of “don’t go to the ER” were 1) it has usually in the past resolved, eventually, on its own, and 2) the idea of getting in the car to go to the ER, and then waiting to be triaged and seen, and maybe imaged, which was likely to take many hours, all while in such pain, was a very negative incentive. If I was going to be writhing in untreated severe pain, I would prefer it to be in my own bed than in the waiting room of an ER. Plus, COVID. Both because it has made the crowding and wait times in ERs and hospitals much worse than “normal”, and because being there increases the risk of exposure and infection. I happen to live in what is currently a “high COVID” state, but nowhere is a really “low COVID risk” area. As it turns out, I didn’t go, and by morning, after about 18 hours, the worst was past. This time. But it will happen again and I will again have to decide what to do.

As do many, many thousands of others, every day, in the US. For many people, a major concern is cost – because visits to the ER are costly for those with no or poor insurance (really a lot of people). Fortunately for me, I’m not in that group. For others, it is because of fear of finding out what the problem is, and that it will be something really bad that they don’t want to know about. That also wasn’t really my issue; as a physician who has dealt with this, I knew what the problem was. Unfortunately, that can make it worse, since my fears and realization of the possible outcomes are based in evidence and not just fear. For yet others, it is the expectation that because of who they are (not White, poor, poorly insured, not well-dressed, have a history of alcohol or drug use or mental illness, or something else that doctors tend to associate with making one of less value) that they will be pushed back in the line, not believed, have their stories discounted, and generally be treated badly. Not really me either, although my physician privilege is decreased now that I am retired in another city, and do not get to go to the ER in the hospital where I work every day and people know me. For a lot of people, it is a combination of these, synergistically making their experience, and expectation of that experience, worse.

In case there may be anyone who is skeptical about my saying it is likely to be hours of waiting even when one presents with an emergency condition and is obviously educated and “respectable” (as a physician or nurse), it happens, and is happening much more continuously in the Age of COVID, when facilities are completely stretched to their limit and resources and people who work there are stressed to the max. Just recently, the last few months, two people who are close to me and are healthcare professionals have been through this experience. One had acute appendicitis, and needed emergency surgery, and after waiting many hours at home before venturing to the ER, waited there for 7 more hours before being seen. Luckily, they are now OK. It was not a positive experience! The other had a similar serious need, a ruptured diverticulitis causing peritonitis. She also waited in excruciating pain for hours, despite the fact that she was accompanied by her husband, a physician from the community who has practiced here for decades who was reduced to screaming at staff before she got her necessary emergency surgery. (For the record, these two people and I are all “seniors”, but these scenarios can and do affect everyone; my initial crisis was when I was 40 years old.)

The best advice anyone can give me is “get an ambulance”; they’ll see you sooner than if you arrive by car. This may well be true, and it may be good advice for me or for any other individual who is not worried about an additional $2000 bill, but in no way addresses the systemic problems that obviously exist.

The first of these is the incredible stress put on the system and the individuals working in it, doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers, by the COVID pandemic. The burden on hospitals and healthcare workers has been phenomenal. In this sense, doctors and nurses and others on the front line are our heroes, as they are often portrayed. Yes, sometimes they can exhibit inappropriate behaviors. These can even be exhibited by folks in whom they rarely manifested before as a result of the continuous stress of working in the situation that they, and we as patients and as a society, find ourselves in. The governmental response to the pandemic, led by a federal administration who acted as if their intention was to do everything completely wrong, was shockingly inadequate. Yes, building new hospital capacity is possible and usually slow, but some localities did it, and yes, training and equipping more healthcare workers takes time. But there is no conceivable justifiable excuse for not having sufficient PPE, for example, months into the pandemic. This could only happen because of the worst possible management. Remember that this is the country that put a person on the moon 8 years after the first suborbital flight, that built the interstate highway system, that could assemble battleships in weeks during WW II, that has enough money to give trillions of $$ in tax cuts to billionaires and corporations. It only did not happen because of more than ineptitude; it happened because of an intent to do evil. We can hope that at least much of this can be reversed by a Biden administration.

The other big structural issue is our terribly designed and implemented healthcare nonsystem that discriminates against people based upon wealth and insurance status, race and ethnicity, age and pre-exisiting conditions, geographical location, and in appropriate allocation of resources that in the best of (non-COVID) circumstances sends a hugely disproportionate number of true emergencies (medical, surgical, trauma) to some hospitals while others have relatively low, and more mild, usage of their emergency facilities. It is also the fact that many people cannot get into see their primary care physicians promptly, or do not even have primary care physicians (or other providers, such as NPs) so end up waiting until they are severely ill and going to the ER. These are people who, if they get hospitalized, can be considered “primary care preventable” hospitalizations. That is, if they had been able to easily and promptly see a primary care doctor for their illness, and at least as important, had their chronic diseases effectively managed and controlled, would have not needed hospitalization – or emergency care. This needs another set of structural solutions. It needs, first off, a universal national health insurance system. Every single person in the country needs to be completely covered for every medical necessity, without copays, deductibles, etc., and we all need to be in the same program.  The pandemic has clearly demonstrated the vulnerability of employer-based coverage. It is long past time, if it ever was, for ideas of gradual piecemeal expansion of Medicare, ACA, Medicaid, etc. If everyone is not in the same system, it is not a possibility but rahter a certainty that some will get better care than others. Separate, the Supreme Court ruled in 1954, is not equal in education, and separate insurance systems cannot create equality in healthcare.

A universal health insurance system, such as Medicare for All, is not going to fix all of the things that I discussed above. We need to ensure that there are hospitals and ERs available to all people. We need to ensure that all hospitals are welcoming to all patients, and that there is a rational system of referral from smaller to larger hospitals.  We must ensure that there is adequate primary care capacity so that everyone can have a provider that they can see regularly, and promptly when needed, and do not need to access ERs for either primary care or for urgent conditions that could have been prevented by good primary care. And we need to make sure that there is adequate emergency capacity for all emergencies to be cared for emergently, and that ERs, and hospitals, and health systems, are designed and funded and run based solely on what best needs the health needs of the entire community, and not on what makes the most profit for the owners. A universal health insurance system is necessary but not sufficient.

We need all that, and need it yesterday.

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