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ACADEMIC EMERGENCY MEDICINE • November 2001, Volume 8, Number 11 1037

ORIGINAL CONTRIBUTIONS

Emergency Department Overcrowding Following


Systematic Hospital Restructuring: Trends at Twenty
Hospitals over Ten Years
MICHAEL J. SCHULL, MD, MSC, JOHN-PAUL SZALAI, PHD,
BRIAN SCHWARTZ, MD, DONALD A. REDELMEIER, MD, MSHSR

Abstract. Objective: Hospital restructuring often was increasing before restructuring. During restruc-
results in fewer inpatient beds, increased ambulatory turing, however, both increased significantly (severe
services, and closures of hospitals or emergency de- 0.2% per month [p < 0.0001]; moderate 0.5% per
partments (EDs). The authors sought to determine month [p < 0.0001]). Similar results were found after
the impact of systematic hospital restructuring on ED controlling for ED utilization. Female gender inde-
overcrowding. Methods: Time series analyses of av- pendently predicted increased overcrowding; older
erage monthly overcrowding for EDs in Toronto, On- age predicted reduced moderate overcrowding; num-
tario, Canada, from 1991 and 2000 (n = 20 hospitals, ber of total visits was not a predictor. Spectral anal-
120 months) were conducted. Autoregression models ysis revealed significant seasonality in overcrowding.
evaluated the rate of increase of overcrowding before Conclusions: Hospital restructuring was associated
and during systematic restructuring. A secondary with increased ED overcrowding, even after control-
analysis included total ED visits, patient age, and sex ling for utilization and patient demographics. Re-
distribution as covariates. Seasonality was assessed structuring should proceed slowly to allow time for
by means of spectral analysis. Results: Severe and monitoring of its effects and modification of the pro-
moderate overcrowding averaged 3% and 14% of the cess, because the impact of incremental reductions in
time each month, respectively, over the whole period. hospital resources may be magnified as maximum op-
Before restructuring (n = 74 months), severe and erating capacity is approached. Key words: emer-
moderate overcrowding averaged 0.5% and 9% per gency department; overcrowding; hospital restructur-
month, respectively; during restructuring (n = 46 ing. ACADEMIC EMERGENCY MEDICINE 2001; 8:
months), the monthly averages were 6% and 23%, re- 1037–1043
spectively. Neither severe nor moderate overcrowding

T HE unpredictable nature of acute illness and


injury makes access to timely emergency
medical care an essential part of modern health
gency health systems to provide rapid and depend-
able care.3–6
In the United States, surveys of hospital direc-
care systems. In the United States, some 100 mil- tors have reported ED overcrowding in almost
lion emergency department (ED) visits occur an- every state,7–10 with 10% to 30% of hospitals sur-
nually,1 while in Canada, the figure is closer to ten veyed reporting daily overcrowding.8,10 Emergency
million.2 Widespread reports of ED overcrowding department overcrowding has also been reported
have raised doubts about the capacity of emer- in Canada3,4,11,12 and Europe.13,14 These reports of
overcrowding have coincided with the restructur-
ing of hospitals and health services due to financial
From the Department of Emergency Services (MJS, BS), Clin- cutbacks and efforts to modernize health care de-
ical Epidemiology Unit (MJS, JPS, DAR), and Division of Pre- livery.15–17 The result has been hospital closures
Hospital Care Research Program (MJS, BS), Sunnybrook and and enhanced ambulatory and community health
Women’s College Health Sciences Centre, Toronto; and the In-
services.3,15,16
stitute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (MJS, JPS, DAR),
Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The objective of this study was to determine
Received March 7, 2001; revision received June 7, 2001; ac- whether the systematic restructuring of a hospital
cepted July 12, 2001. system was associated with increased ED over-
Address for correspondence and reprints: Michael J. Schull,
crowding. The restructuring of Toronto’s hospital
MD, MSc, G-147, Sunnybrook and Women’s College Health Sci-
ences Centre, 2075 Bayview Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, system began in 1997 and entailed changes that
M4N 3M5. E-mail: mjs@ices.on.ca were widespread and complex.15,18 Hospitals and
1038 RESTRUCTURING Schull et al. • ED OVERCROWDING AFTER SYSTEMATIC RESTRUCTURING

EDs closed or merged, various specialized clinical recommendations for Toronto were released in
programs were concentrated in fewer hospitals, March 1997.18
and increased investments were made in commu-
nity, ambulatory, and home care services.18,19 De- Definition of Overcrowding. Emergency depart-
termining the impact of restructuring on emer- ments were defined as overcrowded during periods
gency services is important since similar changes of ambulance diversion. Providing rapid medical
are planned or under way in many jurisdic- care to acutely ill patients is the prime mission of
tions.15,16 Understanding their impact may help EDs, and this often depends on rapid ambulance
avoid or lessen negative effects on emergency ser- transport to an accessible ED. Disruption of this
vices as restructuring takes place elsewhere.20 link by ambulance diversions may, therefore, com-
promise health in the community.3,6,23–27 The diver-
METHODS sion of ambulances in Ontario is governed by a cri-
teria set by the Ministry of Health, and its use is
Study Setting and Population. The study setting monitored. Throughout our study interval, Toronto
was metropolitan Toronto, Canada’s largest urban Ambulance Services participated in a centralized
center with a population of more than 2.3 million system that allows ambulances to be diverted
people. Data on ED overcrowding were obtained away from overcrowded EDs. The EDs continu-
for a ten-year period from January 1991 to Decem- ously update their conditions to the dispatch cen-
ber 2000. At the end of the study period, Toronto ter: normal (all ambulances accepted); re-direct
had 15 hospital-based EDs, all of which operated consideration (no ambulances accepted except
within a public system of universal health insur- those with critically ill patients); and critical care
ance. The city’s hospitals provided acute medical bypass (no ambulances accepted). Paramedics may
care for the vast majority of Toronto residents, but override a hospital’s status if they believe the pa-
also secondary, tertiary, and quaternary care for tient requires specialized care available only at
some patients in surrounding regions. One hospi- certain hospitals (e.g., a trauma or burn center).
tal was the city’s only pediatric emergency quater-
nary care center and never diverted ambulances; The Determinants of Overcrowding. Emergency
it was excluded from the study. A single publicly departments were defined to be severely over-
funded ambulance service with a centralized dis- crowded during periods of critical care bypass, and
patch system provided all out-of-hospital care for moderately overcrowded during periods of re-direct
the city. In 1999, Toronto Ambulance Services re- consideration. An Ontario Ministry of Health Stan-
sponded to 193,000 unscheduled patient requests dard governs the criteria by which decisions should
for transport. be made to divert ambulances. In general, the de-
cision to divert ambulances is made by the attend-
Emergency Physician Services. The Ontario ing emergency physician and/or ED charge nurse.
Health Insurance Program (OHIP) pays for the Conditions other than normal automatically expire
vast majority of emergency physician services at after a standard interval; critical care bypass is
most of the hospitals on a fee-for-service basis; only downgraded to re-direct consideration after 30
work-related injuries, and services to patients from minutes, and re-direct consideration is down-
other countries or other provinces, are not billed to graded to normal after 120 minutes. Emergency
OHIP.21 Physicians at four EDs are funded under departments may renew, upgrade, or downgrade
government-administered alternative payment their conditions at any time.
plans and their services are not billed to OHIP.
However, these sites still report patient visits to Dependent Variable: Average Monthly Over-
OHIP so that utilization of emergency services can crowding. Time series of average monthly over-
be monitored.22 crowding at all Toronto EDs were constructed sep-
arately for moderate and severe overcrowding. For
The Systematic Restructuring Process. A prov- both analyses, the total time (in minutes) per
ince-wide review of hospital services began in On- month that each ED was overcrowded was calcu-
tario in 1996 with the creation of the Health Ser- lated, then the times were summed for all EDs.
vices Restructuring Commission (HSRC) by the Total monthly overcrowding was converted into the
provincial government.15,18 The HSRC was man- percentage of ‘‘available minutes’’ in the following
dated to review hospital services across the prov- manner: [T/(D ⫻ 1,440 ⫻ ED)] ⫻ 100, where ‘‘T’’ is
ince, and had the authority to order their system- the total minutes of overcrowding at all EDs in the
atic restructuring.15,18 For the purposes of this month, ‘‘D’’ is the number of days in the month,
study, systematic restructuring is defined as a pro- 1,440 is the number of minutes in the day, and
cess that is coordinated between hospitals and ‘‘ED’’ is the number of open EDs in the month. In
overseen by a central authority. The commission’s the appropriate months, we adjusted the formula
ACADEMIC EMERGENCY MEDICINE • November 2001, Volume 8, Number 11 1039

TABLE 1. Annual Totals of Acute Care Hospital Beds, Emergency Departments (EDs), and ED Utilization, Toronto
All ED Patients*
No. Acute
Year Care Beds* No. EDs† Annual Volume Average Age (Years) Percent Female

1991 9,727 20 n/a n/a n/a


1992 9,337 20 n/a n/a n/a
1993 8,576 20 545,464 36.8 49
1994 8,283 20 547,500 37.3 50
1995 7,499 20 575,641 37.6 50
1996 7,383 20 608,190 38.2 50
1997 6,837 18 588,807 39.0 51
1998 6,482 17 571,818 39.7 51
1999 6,324 16 545,705 40.1 51
2000 5,894 15 538,316 40.9 52

*All Toronto hospitals, at fiscal year’s end.19


†Twenty-four-hour/day EDs, at calendar year’s end.

for the one ED that reduced its hours of operation as the period during restructuring. This is consis-
during the restructuring period. tent with the March 1997 release of the HSRC re-
port’s recommendations for Toronto and the timing
Data Sources. Data consisting of the minute-by- of the restructuring changes it recommended. In
minute real-time ambulance diversion condition the crude analysis, the independent variables in-
reports for all metropolitan Toronto EDs were ob- cluded 1) time (expressed in months), 2) period (be-
tained from Toronto Ambulance Services for the fore or during restructuring), and 3) a prespecified
period of January 1, 1991, to December 31, 2000. interaction term between restructuring period and
Data regarding all ED visits were obtained from time. All autoregression models incorporated lag
the billing records of OHIP. In Canada’s system of terms for the 12 prior months to account for sea-
universal health insurance, physicians’ services for sonality and the autocorrelation of observations.28
the vast majority of ED visits are billed to OHIP.
Emergency department visits can be differentiated Interpretation of Crude Analysis. The coefficient
in OHIP records based on their unique billing of the time variable represented the monthly rate
codes. Multiple billings by different physicians for of change of overcrowding in the average ED, and
a single ED patient (e.g., ED physician and con- the test of significance determined whether the
sultant seeing the same patient) can be readily dis- rate was significantly different from zero. The in-
tinguished by the specific codes used for each pur- teraction term coefficient represented the differ-
pose. To avoid counting a single patient visit ence between the rates of change in the two inter-
multiple times, we included only billings paid to vals, and its test of significance determined
the initial ED physician. Patient demographic in- whether the two rates were significantly different
formation such as age and sex are also present. from each other. The presence of seasonality was
The OHIP data from April 1992 to March 2000 assessed by means of spectral analysis and the
were available for analysis. Using OHIP data to Fisher’s kappa (FK) and Bartlett-Kolmogorov-
determine utilization will miss some patients if the Smirnoff (BKS) statistics.29
physicians’ services were not be billed to OHIP
(e.g., hospitals where physicians are paid via al- Multivariate Analysis. A multivariate analysis
ternate payment plans rather than fee-for-service, was conducted for both severe and moderate over-
patients living outside of Ontario, uninsured pa- crowding with three covariates added to the mod-
tients, incorrect OHIP numbers, left without being els: 1) total monthly volume of ED patients pre-
seen). The study was considered exempt from re- senting to all Toronto EDs, 2) the average age of
search ethics board approval since only aggregate all ED patients per month, and 3) sex distribution
patient data were used. (proportion of female patients). The secondary
analysis was conducted from April 1992 to March
Crude Analysis. Autoregression analysis28 was 2000 since data for covariates were available only
used for both time series since we could not as- for this time period.
sume the observations were independent from
each other (i.e., overcrowding in one month may RESULTS
affect the next). The months up to February 1997
were defined as the period before restructuring, The hospital restructuring process resulted in clo-
and the months from March 1997 on were defined sures or mergers of nine acute care hospitals in
1040 RESTRUCTURING Schull et al. • ED OVERCROWDING AFTER SYSTEMATIC RESTRUCTURING

Toronto, the creation of ambulatory care centers, linear trends before and during restructuring from
the concentration of some clinical programs in the crude analysis. The monthly rates of change of
fewer hospitals, and increased ambulatory and severe and moderate overcrowding from the crude
community health services. Prior to restructuring, analysis are shown in Table 2. Before restructur-
there were 20 hospital-based EDs; during restruc- ing, severe overcrowding was not increasing, while
turing, four closed and a fifth converted to an ur- moderate overcrowding was decreasing slightly
gent care center.19 All hospital and ED closures oc- (⫺0.05% per month, p = 0.01). During restructur-
curred during restructuring, but the number of ing, overcrowding began to increase significantly.
staffed acute care beds decreased both before and Severe and moderate overcrowding both began to
during restructuring. Out of a total of 9,727 acute increase at a rate of 0.4% per month (p = 0.0001),
care beds at Toronto hospitals in 1991, 2,890 were and the differences between the rates in the two
closed by 1997, with a further reduction of 943 time periods were significant for both levels of
beds by 200019 (Table 1). overcrowding (p = 0.0001). The autoregression
Monthly overcrowding data were obtained for models demonstrated excellent fit an R 2 = 0.94 and
all EDs for a total of 120 months (n = 74 before 0.83 for severe and moderate overcrowding, re-
restructuring and n = 46 months during restruc- spectively.
turing). Over the entire time series, the average
ED was severely overcrowded 3% of each month, Results after Controlling for ED Utilization.
and moderately overcrowded 14% of each month. The multivariate analysis controlled for ED utili-
Before restructuring, severe and moderate over- zation and patient demographics over 96 months
crowding averaged 0.5% and 9% per month; during (n = 59 before restructuring and n = 37 during re-
restructuring the corresponding monthly averages structuring). Overall, total visits averaged 47,098
increased to 6% and 23% per month. Spectral anal- per month, the mean age of the ED patients was
ysis suggested the presence of seasonality for both 38.7 years, and 50.4% of the patients were female.
severe and moderate overcrowding (FK and BKS An independent association between restructuring
tests, p < 0.05). period and overcrowding persisted in the multi-
variate analysis (Table 3). The restructuring pe-
Rates of Change of Monthly Average Over- riod independently predicted increases in average
crowding. Time series of monthly average over- severe and moderate overcrowding of 0.2% (p =
crowding are shown in Figure 1, along with the 0.0001) and 0.5% (p = 0.0001) per month, respec-

Figure 1. Monthly emergency department overcrowding from 1991 to 2000 and linear trends before and during
hospital restructuring.
ACADEMIC EMERGENCY MEDICINE • November 2001, Volume 8, Number 11 1041

tively, and the differences before and during re- TABLE 2. Rate of Increase of Emergency Department
structuring were significant for both levels of Overcrowding before and during Restructuring
overcrowding (p = 0.0001). The multivariate auto- Level of Rate of Change in
regression models demonstrated excellent fit an R2 Over- Percent per Month
= 0.86 and 0.87 for severe and moderate over- crowding Time (p-value)
crowding, respectively. Severe Before restructuring 0.002 (0.92)
Gender was a significant independent predictor During restructuring 0.38 (0.0001)
of overcrowding: for every 1% increase in the pro- Difference (during–before) 0.38 (0.0001)
portion of females, severe overcrowding increased
Moderate Before restructuring ⫺0.05 (0.01)
by 0.5% (p = 0.03), and moderate overcrowding in- During restructuring 0.40 (0.0001)
creased by 1.7% (p = 0.001). The average age of ED Difference (during–before) 0.45 (0.0001)
patients was an independent predictor of moder-
ate, but not severe, overcrowding. For every one-
year increase in average age, the model predicted TABLE 3. Determinants of Emergency Department (ED)
that moderate overcrowding declined 2% (p = Overcrowding before and during Restructuring
0.001). Total number of ED visits was not a signif- Level of
icant predictor of ED overcrowding; however, there Over- Coefficient
was a trend toward an association between in- crowding Independent Variables (p-value)
creased patient volume and worsened moderate
Severe Time
overcrowding (p = 0.09). Before restructuring ⫺0.01 (0.49)
During restructuring 0.23 (0.0001)
DISCUSSION Difference (during–before) 0.25 (0.0001)
Total ED visits 0.00004 (0.26)
Average age ⫺0.04 (0.83)
Our results suggest that ED overcrowding was in- Proportion of females 51.90 (0.03)
frequent and stable prior to hospital restructuring,
but began to increase substantially during restruc- Moderate Time
turing. Increases in both severe and moderate Before restructuring 0.00 (0.99)
overcrowding remained highly significant even af- During restructuring 0.49 (0.0001)
Difference (during–before) 0.49 (0.0001)
ter controlling for ED utilization in both periods. Total ED visits 0.0002 (0.09)
We found no evidence to suggest that major shifts Average age ⫺1.97 (0.001)
in demographics were responsible for decreased ac- Proportion of females 165.66 (0.001)
cess to timely emergency care. Seasonal effects
were controlled for in our analysis and are there-
fore unlikely to account for the sustained increase
in overcrowding seen since 1997. closed between 1991 and 1997,19 but no increase in
Our study shows that hospital restructuring ED overcrowding was seen. In comparison, a fur-
may worsen ED overcrowding. While the total ther 943 beds (14%) were closed from 1998 to 2000,
number of visits remained fairly steady over the the period during which ED overcrowding wors-
study interval, five EDs out of 20 (25%) closed fol- ened substantially.
lowing restructuring (Table 1). This compares with We believe that these results suggest that the
an 8% reduction in the number of EDs in the bed closures that occurred as part of systematic
United States over five years from 1994 to 1999.6 restructuring took place within a hospital system
These five EDs treated 15% of all Toronto ED pa- already operating at close to capacity. Excess ca-
tients in the last year that they were open. In ad- pacity, reduced demand, or enhanced hospital ef-
dition, the rate at which EDs closed may have ex- ficiency may have mitigated the impact of earlier
acerbated overcrowding: the first three EDs were bed closures. In each year during the restructuring
closed within seven months of each other, and the period, the occupancy rate of acute care beds in
other two followed within the next two and a half Toronto hospitals exceeded 90% and peaked at 96%
years. The rapid pace of closures in Toronto may in 2000.4 A British study suggested that normal
not have allowed the remaining EDs to expand ser- fluctuation in demand for emergency admissions
vices or improve efficiency rapidly enough. will result in bed shortages and periodic bed crises
Hospital restructuring in Toronto resulted in a if average acute care bed occupancy rises to 90%.30
net reduction of acute care beds, a factor that has We found that total ED visits did not predict
been previously suggested as a cause of ED over- overcrowding, though there was a trend toward an
crowding.3–6 However, acute care beds began to be association for moderate overcrowding. This is not
closed before the restructuring process began (Ta- surprising since large changes in visit rates rarely
ble 1), primarily in response to budget cutbacks.15 occur in large populations. Other studies have also
A total of 2,890 of 9,727 (30%) acute care beds were found that increasing ED utilization is not a major
1042 RESTRUCTURING Schull et al. • ED OVERCROWDING AFTER SYSTEMATIC RESTRUCTURING

cause of increased hospital admissions,31 or of in- began as far back as 1991, resulting in fewer
creased diversion of ambulances.32 staffed acute care beds even before the restructur-
Conversely, a higher proportion of female ED ing report was released.19 However, such changes
patients was found to predict worsened overcrowd- were not carried out systematically, and there
ing. This may reflect the fact that atypical pre- were no acute care hospital or ED closures before
sentations are more common in women, for exam- November 1997.
ple, in cardiac disease,33 or that the differential Hospital restructuring is unlikely to go away.
diagnoses are more varied, for example, in abdom- Therefore, future research should focus on deter-
inal pain.34 Hence, additional time and more inten- mining which aspects of restructuring are most
sive investigations may be needed for women as closely associated with ED overcrowding. The ex-
compared with men. tent to which system-level factors such as ED clo-
Average age was not associated with severe sures or the reorganization of clinical services in-
overcrowding, and was predictive of reduced mod- dependently affect overcrowding is unknown.
erate overcrowding. This may reflect higher Similarly, studies at the hospital level are needed
thresholds for the use of interventions in elder pa- to better understand the most important factors
tients. Indeed, it is known that elder patients with behind day-to-day ED overcrowding at individual
acute myocardial infarctions are less likely to re- institutions.
ceive thrombolysis, despite proven benefits of the
therapy,35,36 suggesting that they are treated less CONCLUSIONS
intensely than are younger patients. Similarly,
elders may be less likely to receive other resource- To our knowledge, this study represents the most
intensive medical interventions, such as prolonged extensive longitudinal study of ED overcrowding in
cardiac monitoring or admission to an intensive or the literature. Our results are important since hos-
coronary care unit bed, and hence contribute less pital restructuring is occurring across North Amer-
to overcrowding. The explanation for this associa- ica and other parts of the world,6,15,16 yet the impact
tion requires further study. is often poorly evaluated.20
In the future, when resource reductions are oc-
LIMITATIONS AND FUTURE QUESTIONS curring within a hospital system, we believe that
the pace at which these changes take place should
Our study is limited by several factors. First, there be carefully considered. A reduced rate may allow
may be other contemporaneous factors accounting for interim assessments of the cumulative impact
for the increased overcrowding not considered in of the changes, and allow more time to increase the
our analysis. However, we are aware of no other efficiency and capacity of remaining resources.
important changes in the operation of hospital, Similarly, the impact of resource reductions is
emergency, or other health services in the region likely to depend on the degree of excess capacity
over the same time period. Similarly, it is doubtful and opportunity for enhancing efficiency within
that changes in patterns of morbidity or severity the system. The impact of early resource reduc-
of illness before and during restructuring would be tions, such as acute care bed closures, may not pre-
sufficiently dramatic to explain our findings. In- dict the impact of subsequent ones, and further re-
deed, age is an important predictor of acuity and ductions in resources may cause disproportionate
comorbidity, but controlling for this factor did not disruptions.30
change the conclusions. Changes in ED treatment From a political perspective, closing beds, hos-
practices will have taken place over the study pe- pitals, or EDs is best done over a short time inter-
riod, but their impact on overcrowding is difficult val to avoid accusations of singling out individual
to predict. Finally, patients during the restructur- institutions and to limit time for opposition to de-
ing period may have tended to present more errat- velop. From a medical perspective, however, de-
ically than in earlier years (that is, in intermittent creasing resources is like withdrawing medica-
surges rather than in a steady stream); such un- tions: it is best done slowly over an extended
even demand could exacerbate ED overcrowding. period in order to monitor the impact and adjust
Nonetheless, we believe it is highly unlikely that the process. These different perspectives lead to
these factors could be sufficient to account for the different approaches, and we can offer no easy res-
dramatic increases in overcrowding seen since olution to this tension. It is, however, one more
1997. reason why clinicians and regulators sometimes do
An additional limitation is that our analysis not agree.
considers that restructuring took place entirely af-
ter 1997. This may appear artificial, since there The authors thank Dr. Muhammad Mamdani, Ms. Jeri Sever,
are anticipatory changes going on within any com- and Ms. Lina Paolucci for their help and advice in the comple-
plex system. Indeed, reductions to hospital budgets tion of the manuscript.
ACADEMIC EMERGENCY MEDICINE • November 2001, Volume 8, Number 11 1043

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