Hospitals Nationwide See ‘Suprising Increase’ of Patients
A "surprising increas[e]" in the number of patients seeking treatment at hospitals around the country has led some health centers to turn away ambulances or make patients wait "hours or even days" for a room, the New York Times reports. According to the American Hospital Association, more than 33 million people were admitted to hospitals in 2000, up from a low of 30.7 million in 1994. In addition, outpatient visits to hospitals increased 16% between 1997 and 2000, to 521 million nationwide. Several factors have led to the patient increase, the Times reports. Health insurers -- which had previously limited coverage for hospital visits -- have "loosened their controls" over the past two years and are less strict about paying for emergency room visits and overnight stays. Also, emergency rooms have seen a more marked increase in patients who lost their jobs -- and subsequently their health insurance -- and must rely more heavily on emergency care facilities. Finally, an aging baby-boomer generation requires more hospital care, medical advances allow physicians to treat conditions for which patients previously might not have sought treatment.
Hospitals' difficulties in treating the increased number of patients are compounded by a general decrease in the number of hospitals -- down 14% since 1985 -- and hospital beds -- down 18% -- according to statistics from the AHA. The Times reports that national hospital occupancy is at 64%, its highest level since 1993, and even that average "may not provide a true picture of how crowded a hospital may be." On particularly busy days, some hospitals are seeing occupancy rates exceed 100%. To respond to this overcrowding, many for-profit hospitals are expanding. A study by the Society for Healthcare Strategy and Market Development predicts hospitals will spend $5 billion building new facilities over the next five years. Not-for-profit hospitals are also expanding but find that financial limitations make funding construction "more difficult." Instead of building new facilities, these hospitals are "trying to operate more efficiently, discharging patients more quickly when possible" (Abelson, New York Times, 3/28).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.