Arizona’s emergency medical system is on life support, suffering from a shortage of physicians, nurses and hospital beds, crippled by overcrowding, and ill-prepared to handle a large-scale crisis, according to a national study released
The state ranked 42nd with a D+ — tied with eight other states — in the report card by the American College of Emergency Physicians.
This comes as no surprise to anyone who’s been in an emergency room lately. Explosive growth and a widespread flu outbreak have exacerbated already crowded conditions at East Valley hospitals.
Banner Baywood Medical Center in Mesa even closed its emergency room for three hours on New Year’s Day because it could not handle the patient load.
"I’m worried about my family. I’m worried about myself if I get in a car accident," said Dr. Todd Taylor, an emergency physician. "I see the misery that people go through every day."
Arizona ranks near the bottom among states in the number of hospital beds (47th), nurses (45th) and emergency departments (43rd), according to the survey.
Specialists are in critically short supply, with more than half of hospitals saying they have no on-call neurosurgeons, hand surgeons, vascular surgeons, plastic surgeons, ear, nose and throat specialists or gastroenterologists.
A hospital building boom is expected to ease overcrowding somewhat over the next several years, but that won’t solve recruitment problems.
The new Gilbert Hospital, dedicated to emergency medicine, is due to open at the end of the month on Power Road. Dr. Tim Johns, the hospital’s founder and medical director, said the need is overwhelming.
"The system is set up to work perfectly back in the 1970s," Johns said, before Maricopa County and Gilbert became the fastestgrowing regions in the country.
In those days, he said, fewer than 1 percent of people left emergency rooms without treatment. Today, that number is up to 15 percent.
In addition to Gilbert Hospital, a 170-bed facility is due to open in Mesa next year, and two Banner hospitals are expanding. Overall, more than $1 billion in hospital construction is under way or planned in the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas.
"That may just get us back to square one . . . but we don’t know if it’s going to be enough," said Taylor, public affairs vice president for the emergency physicians’ Arizona chapter.
Recruiting emergency room doctors and specialists is hampered by the state’s malpractice laws, which earned the state a D- in the report’s section on medical liability.
The report recommends capping malpractice damages, and Taylor said physicians also want the standard of proof tightened to require "clear and convincing" evidence of negligence.
Although the report recommends that the state contribute more to help insure the poor, Arizona’s scores were boosted by the number of children insured through KidsCare.
The physicians group gave an overall grade of C- to emergency care nationwide, noting that the number of emergency room patients has increased dramatically while the number of emergency departments has declined by 14 percent since 1993.
The scores are based on figures from 2003 or earlier, before some local hospital expansions were completed.
No state fared very well, with more than 80 percent getting poor or near-failing grades. Only four, including California and Massachusetts, earned the highest overall grade of B.
Read the report from the American College of Emergency Physicians at