Healthcare’s New Normal: How Freestanding Emergency Rooms Play A Critical Role During A Global Health Crisis
By Dr. Jeremy Kenter, chief medical officer, Ally Medical ER.
COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on every aspect of American life, but the health care sector- particularly emergency care – has been hardest hit.
The overwhelming number and cost care for COVID-19 patients has pushed health care professionals to exhaustion, forced some facilities to ration care or close, and has led to significantly delayed access to care for all. In this crisis, every option must be utilized to ensure crucial resources are maximized and patients receive the care they need.
Pre-pandemic, the average ER wait time in the United States was around 40 minutes. At the height of the current Delta variant, ER waits increased to several hours, or longer. More than 10 states have recently reached their highest hospital admissions of the pandemic. From the Southeast to the Pacific Northwest, patients are seeking alternative emergency room care.
To avoid having to endure packed waiting rooms full of potential COVID-19 patients, many doctors are urging patients to consider alternatives, including freestanding ERs. As the pandemic surges, freestanding ERs are playing a crucial in relieving stress on community hospital systems and improving patient care.
Safe, Faster Service and Less Waiting
Outside of COVID-19, emergency room overcrowding can be dangerous for patients and is considered a severe public health issue. For sick and injured patients, long wait times can result in complications and more detrimental outcomes, even death. Ensuring emergency room access that is readily available, fully staffed, and stocked is the key to patient satisfaction, safety, and better overall patient outcomes. By offering COVID-19 testing and treatment, freestanding ERs in certain regions, like Texas and Oklahoma, have helped thousands of patients avoid crowded waiting rooms and receive sterling care.
Early in the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported the proportion of ER visits for exposure and contact with infectious diseases (COVID-19) was nearly four times higher than previous years. More people sought out alternative treatment options due to the sheer number of patients crowding hospitals.
Freestanding ERs are smaller, typically less trafficked than mainstream hospitals, and often owned by fully accredited emergency room physicians. In some cases, they have direct agreements with payers, such as mid-sized businesses, and other providers as referral sources. These facilities are often located in underserved areas and offer an invaluable resource to the local community. In these cases, freestanding ERs provide PCR tests and access to critical treatments that are otherwise unavailable.
Regeneron Treatments for COVID-19 Treatment
Freestanding ERs have offered Regeneron Pharmaceuticals breakthrough REGEN-COV antibody cocktail therapy for COVID-19 positive patients since it became available in November 2020. However, it is only able to be administered via IV and, therefore, must be administered in a hospital or emergency room setting. Since then, 600,000 people have been treated with the antibody infusion to reduce the risk of transmission and more serious illness.
It is proven to decrease symptoms and lower hospitalization by 75%. Usually taking less than an hour to administer, REGEN-COV is one of the most powerful treatment weapons available for those with moderate to severe COVID-19 symptoms.
By providing this treatment, freestanding ERs are eliminating the need for a hospital visit, easing overcrowding, and providing greater access to care. During this summer’s Delta peak, Ally Medical ERs in Texas were administering Regeneron to roughly 25 patients a day, across six different locations. That number has thankfully dropped as the Delta variant begins to wane this fall, but the infrastructure and protocols are now in place.
The Proof Is In the Numbers
In 2020, the CDC reported there were more than 130 million visits to ERs. The hospital alternative has gained momentum, especially in Texas, where nearly 1.4 million patients visit freestanding ERs each year. According to a United Healthcare Study, the freestanding ER trend is significant and lasting, with a more than 150% increase in the number freestanding ER’s in just the last decade.
Freestanding emergency rooms provide people with immediate care when they need it the most, and have demonstrated their true value to patients, communities, and hospital systems during the pandemic. As the nation moves forward, these facilities will play an even larger role in improving health outcomes.