In 2010, an ABC News story shocked America when it revealed that the average emergency room visitor had to wait over four hours to receive treatment. The absurd wait time was attributed to overcrowding in public hospitals.
Since that time, hospitals around the country have made extensive efforts to decrease their ER wait times. In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the average patient waited just 30 minutes before treatment.
The improvement is laudable, but for some, a 30-minute wait is still too long. Unfortunately, emergency room malpractice occurs frequently, and legal action may be required to receive compensation for injuries caused by or exacerbated as a result of a long wait or an ER doctor’s negligence.
Common Emergency Room Mistakes
When patients arrive at the emergency room, they almost always need speedy relief from pain, a reliable diagnosis and treatment, and competent care from medical personnel. Long wait times are just one way that an emergency room could fail its patients; other ways include:
- Unsanitary conditions
- Medication errors
- Triage (the doctor-to-patient communication and tracking system)
- Inadequate training of personnel, particularly in admissions staff members
- Inadequate diagnostic tools
- Patient dumping (a term that refers to a private hospital refusing to treat a patient without insurance)
Of course, hospitals usually take every opportunity to improve care and help patients. And because an emergency room is usually the first place that people with severe medical conditions or injuries visit, standards are put in place to ensure that everyone is treated as quickly as possible.
How an Emergency Room Works
In order to ensure that emergencies are treated appropriately, triage comes into play. Admissions staff, nurses, and doctors need to diagnose the level of urgency that each patient represents and treat that person accordingly. Wounds, illnesses, and medical conditions require different treatments, and some are less critical than others.
For example, a patient involved in a motorcycle accident with severe swelling in the brain and internal bleeding should be admitted immediately, even if another patient with a broken wrist has waited 60 minutes to see a physician.
Because the nature of an emergency room demands frequent, timely, and accurate triage decisions, hospitals develop written policies to help staff make the right call about their patients’ care. These policies are strict and thorough, and address every level of staff in the hospital-from volunteers and janitors to operation room doctors and nurses.
These policies set a standard of care that all staff strive to meet under any and all circumstances. In legal terms, the standard of care refers to the competence that a doctor, nurse, or staff member should have when compared to other similarly-trained and skilled medical personnel.
When the standard of care is violated and results in intensifying a patient’s injury or condition (or if it results in a new, preventable injury), that patient may have an emergency room malpractice case.
Potential ER Malpractice Situations & Case Scaffolding
Victims of emergency room malpractice should consult with an attorney immediately. A malpractice claim revolves around two critical aspects:
1. The health care provider’s negligence or poor decision
2. The harm caused by the health care provider
To determine a claim’s efficacy, the health care provider’s negligence must be proven. Your attorney will examine the standard of care and consult with medical experts. If evidence suggests that what the doctor, nurse, or staff member did violated the medical standard, there may be legal footing for a lawsuit.
Once the health care provider’s negligence has been proven, your attorney will factor in the second element. This factor requires proof that the emergency room caused foreseeable damage.
For example, let’s say a patient arrives at the emergency room with a broken leg. The patient has to wait for hours in the waiting room, and blood clots form in the patient’s leg because of restricted blood flow. The blood clots travel to the lungs, and the patient suffers a pulmonary embolism—a medical condition that might not have occurred if the patient had been treated more readily.
Or perhaps a patient arrives with an open, bleeding wound. The emergency room staff fail to staunch the bleeding sufficiently until the patient can be admitted for treatment, and the patient suffers from excessive blood loss.
These injuries have legal strength if they lead to:
- Exorbitant medical bills
- Loss of ability to work
- Loss of ability to enjoy life
An attorney will analyze the facts of the case and make an informed decision about how best to seek compensation and appropriate retribution for the affected parties.
The emergency room should be a place of safety and healing, not a place where you suffer more pain and injury. If you feel that your emergency room experience resulted in preventable injury, and if you have reason to believe that a health care professional was the cause, speak to your attorney.