Better Health: Smart Health Commentary Better Health (TM): smart health commentary

Article Comments

Emergency Medicine: Census and Sensibility

helpEmergency has something in common with Labor & Delivery.

Neither department has control over their census.

Medical/surgical, telemetry units and ICUs have a finite number of beds. When they are full, they are full; they cannot physically expand to more beds.

ED patients and laboring women are never turned away no matter how full the department may be. Oh, the ED may triage and L&D may send a patient in early labor home, but in both cases, eventually, all will be seen.

Labor and delivery has one advantage over the ED.

They can have someone on call.

I’ve never worked in an ED that has had an “on-call” nurse.


I will never understand the logic behind staffing an ED based on the previous 24 hour census.

If the ED does not meet a pre-determined number of patients on one day, the break nurse for the next day is canceled and there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth as the department goes over budget.

Never mind that the acuity level of the patients who were seen was through the roof. Or that 50% of them were admitted. Or that the next day, acuity again sky high, the nurses go without meals/breaks and the department is required to give penalty pay. Again, there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth for having to pay this penalty, a penalty that would never have been required had the break nurse not been canceled.


Now if the ED is slow, staff can always go home early. But not too early, because you never know what is coming in through the doors. So maybe an hour, 90 minutes early, knowing that the remaining staff can handle whatever they need to handle until the next shift comes in.

But what happens when the patients overwhelm the staff, both in acuity and numbers?  Ambulance diversion doesn’t stop the walk-in critical patients. The MIs and the possible CVAs. The GI bleeders. The potentially septic. Trying to get patients out of the department and up to the floor doesn’t work when the floor won’t take the patient for four hours because it would put them “out of ratio”.

This is a huge issue on the night shift. When there is only one unit clerk/registrar, two nurses and an ED tech after 0300.

Of course, at night it is feast or famine.

Either the feces hits the proverbial fan or…it doesn’t.

Which is exactly why we need a nurse on-call.

The ED needs flexible staffing that accounts for those times when the acuity level/census is overwhelming. Not canceling the extra break nurse is one way of doing that on days and evenings; using the on-call system is another way that could be utilized at night. If it can be done in L&D, why can’t it be done in the ED? Surely the money saved in penalty pay for missed breaks and meals would make it budget neutral.

All I know is that trying to drop staff in an ED based on what happened the previous 24 hours makes zero sense.

(And don’t even get me started on why nurse-patient ratios are treated like unbreakable rules on the floors, but it’s okay for the ED to be waaaaay out of ratio and nobody blinks….that’s another whole post!)

*This blog post was originally published at Emergiblog*

You may also like these posts

    None Found

Read comments »

Comments are closed.

Return to article »

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

Read more »

How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

Read more »

See all interviews »

Latest Cartoon

See all cartoons »

Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

Read more »

The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

Read more »

Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

Read more »

See all book reviews »