By Joy Stephenson-Laws, J.D., Founder
With ERs and ICUs Maxing Out, Protecting Your Health is Now Even More Important
Here in the United States, we have always had a tacit – albeit unspoken – agreement with our hospitals and doctors. If we got sick or hurt and needed emergency or intensive care, they would treat and take care of us. This was very much in line with the general approach of the medical community which tended to put an emphasis on treatment and “fixing” rather than on preventing a need for a visit to the ER or for an ICU bed in the first place.
This understanding worked fine for the longest time until the pandemic – and especially the latest wave – hit and changed its terms. Now, if you need the ER or ICU, you can no longer be sure that you, or a loved one, will be taken care of or get a bed in time to literally save your life.
Consider these recent stories that made headlines:
- A boy in Florida went to the ER with what turned out to be appendicitis. He ended up waiting and writhing in pain for six hours before he was seen. He was then taken by ambulance to another hospital better equipped for pediatric surgery. By the time the doctors got around to operating, his appendix burst, which put him in a life-threatening situation. He ended up spending five days in the hospital on antibiotics.
- In Texas, a middle-aged Army veteran went to the ER with abdominal pain. He was diagnosed with gallstone pancreatitis, which, while serious, is treatable with specialized surgery and a stay in the ICU. Unfortunately, it took almost six hours for the hospital to find him a bed in an appropriate facility – and this after calling hospitals not only in Texas but also in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Colorado. None of them could accept him. By the time they found a bed, it was too late for the surgery. He passed away – 26 hours after first arriving at the ER!
- A doctor in Texas reported seeing a critically ill Covid-19 patient waiting in the ER for an ICU bed. The doctor worked an eight-hour turn and left. When he came back the next day, the patient was still in the ER waiting.
- In Alabama, a critically ill heart patient needed a specialized cardiac ICU bed. To find one, the hospital he went to called some 43 others before they were successful. He was eventually transferred to a hospital 200 miles away in Mississippi. He later died.
- Perhaps even more concerning was the news from Idaho that the state, for the first time, was preparing to activate, if necessary and as a last resort, what is known as “crisis standards of care.” This protocol allows for the rationing of healthcare if required to save the greatest number of lives. This means, for example, that if two patients needed a ventilator in the ICU but only one were available, the patient with the greatest probability of survival would have priority for this life saving medical device. Idaho hospitals may not be alone in having to adopt crisis standards of care.
As these examples show, having to wait for ER related services can put the patient at risk. And studies show the longer the wait, the more dangerous it can be. In fact, patients may spend far more time in the hospital than they otherwise would have (the boy with the ruptured appendix is a good example of this). It also may increase the risk of dying in the hospital.
Given that this stress on ER and ICU capacity may not ease up for a while, the best thing you can do to protect your and your family’s health is to take steps to reduce your risk of finding yourself in a situation that requires a trip to the ER. In fact, this is good strategy to follow all the time and not just during a pandemic. Even with adequate capacity, it’s better to not have to go to the ER at all. Preventing a disease or medical condition is always preferable to treating it.
How to Reduce the Risk for Needing the ER
The first thing to keep in mind is that you will not be able to prevent all the reasons you may need an ER. If you or a family member needs to go, you need to do so as quickly as possible. These include:
- Weakness/numbness on one side, slurred speech
- Chest pain, pressure on your chest, trouble breathing
- Serious cuts or burns
- Injury to the head or eyes
- Change in mental state, fainting, confusion, concussion
- Broken bones, dislocated joints
Also, if you or someone you are with may be having a stroke or heart attack, call 911 without delay.
But if we look at some of the other top reasons that people end up in the ER, it’s clear that we can be taking proactive steps now to reduce the risk of their happening. Some of these are:
- Falls: Are one of the most common reasons that people end up in the ER, accounting for some 8 million ER visits a year. The risk for a fall increases with age. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), more than one in three people aged 65 years or older falls each year. NIH also reports that each year more than 1.6 million older U.S. adults go to emergency departments for fall-related injuries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports an older adult falls every second of every day in the United States, making falls the number one cause of injuries and deaths from injury among older Americans. To learn about ways to prevent falls, check out these pH blogs.
- Cardiovascular Events: The most common of these would be heart attacks and strokes. Obesity, given its role in developing hypertension, among other conditions, is one of the leading contributors to increasing our risk for cardiovascular disease. Not being balanced nutritionally and not eating a heart-healthy diet, which can contribute to such risk factors as inflammation and high cholesterol levels, are also something we can take steps to prevent or manage. You can follow these links to learn more about how to manage your weight as well as keep your heart healthy.
- Headaches: Along with falls, another common reason people go to the ER is because of headaches. Of course, if you have ongoing and/or severe headaches, as well as migraines, you should talk with a competent health practitioner about them to determine what is causing them and what you can do about them. Assuming they are not symptomatic of something more serious, there are things that you can do to help better manage them, as suggested in these blogs.
- Back Pain: Can – and does – happen to anyone. Many times, they are caused by a strain from incorrectly lifting something heavy (remember the advice to lift with our legs and not our backs), sleeping in a wrong position, a sport injury, or an accident. To help you better manage and cope with back pain, pH Labs has published a variety of blogs with suggestions that you may find helpful.
- Abdominal Pain: Can be caused by a variety of things, some of which may be serious and some of which maybe the result of poor lifestyle and dietary choices. If you take steps to keep your gut and digestive track healthy, this may reduce your risk of ending up in the ER for having an upset stomach from eating too many hot dogs versus something that does require a trip to the ER, such as appendicitis or kidney stones. You can find a wealth of information from pH Labs on digestive health by following this link.
- Upper Respiratory Infections: One of the best ways to help reduce your risk for having to go to the ER for an upper respiratory infection is to keep your immune system in tip-top shape. Doing so will help it better do its job of protecting you from the pathogens that that cause these infections and recuperate more quickly should you catch a bug.
- Toothaches: While this may surprise you, people do go to the ER for toothaches and other dental issues. Many of these visits, other than those caused by injury, of course, may be preventable if people followed better dental health practices. Even if you have been putting of a visit to the dentist because of the pandemic, there is still a lot you can be doing. To get you started, here are some suggestions.
You should also be following a healthier lifestyle to better protect your health in general. This includes eating a primarily plant-based diet, getting enough exercise and natural sleep, and managing stress.
Enjoy your healthy life!
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide medical advice. Please consult with your doctor or another competent healthcare practitioner to get specific medical advice for your situation.