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Getting out of the war zone: Should seniors have a different type of ER?

It's a situation you never want to face: stuck in the ER, desperate for answers about what's happening to a person who is dear to you.

Far too often, the triage patients experience in these emergency department settings is brutal. The snap judgments are one-size-fits-all -- even when elderly people, with their complicated conditions, need a different type of screening.

Should hospitals create a different type of urgent-services setting for seniors? In this post, we will discuss the emerging trend toward geriatric emergency rooms.

The traditional model: fast and furious

The high-stress setting of a hospital emergency department is a well-known feature of American life. It was popularized, for example, on the long-running TV series "ER" from 1994 to 2009.

Even if you didn't watch that series, you are probably familiar with the scene. Gun-shot victims, people having heart attacks and others experiencing exigent situations stream into a central setting, demanding an expedited response.

The urgent demands naturally require rapid-fire choices by ER doctors. Patients whose conditions seem serious may be admitted to the hospital. Others may be sent home because nothing seems seriously wrong. This can happen, for example, with people experiencing chest pain, once doctors think they have ruled out a heart attack.

The problem, of course, is that proper sensitivity to the conditions of patients who require a more sensitive level of care can be ignored in the rush to make an immediate judgment. This can happen due to pressure to keep the assembly-line of patients moving for ER doctors who may be working in a system that only allows them to spend a few minutes with each patient.

Getting out of the war zone

This assembly-line approach to urgent services is especially problematic for elderly patients. After all, senior citizens often have multiple chronic conditions and detailed medical histories that are not easy to interpret in only a few short minutes.

One physician assistant described traditional ERs as like a war zone because of how crowded and fast-paced they are. This is a fitting image, given that triage -- a form of which ERs continue to practice -- came from a battlefield setting. In such a setting, doctors focused their services only on those whom it made the most sense to try to save.

In the ER war zone, elderly patients have too often lost out, with doctors unable to give sufficient attention to the complexities of older folks' cases.

It is therefore encouraging to hear that some hospital systems around the country are creating emergency rooms that are specifically focused on serving the elderly.

The idea behind geriatric ERs isn't only to allow for more time for diagnosis, in a setting where doctors aren't overwhelmed by sheer size number of patients to be served in such a short time. To be sure, that is part of it. But geriatric ERs are also are based on the premise that the doctors serving the elderly showed have specialized training in geriatric care.

If harm has already occurred

Someone close to you may have already been harmed by what you believe may have been medical errors. If that is the case, it makes sense to discuss your situation with an attorney experienced in the law of medical malpractice.

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