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Highlights

Hospital emergency departments are a major part of the nation's health care safety net. Of the estimated 119 million visits to U.S. emergency departments in 2006, over 40 percent were paid for by federally-supported programs. These programs--Medicare, Medicaid, and the State Children's Health Insurance Program--are administered by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). There have been reports of crowded conditions in emergency departments, often associated with adverse effects on patient quality of care. In 2003, GAO reported that most emergency departments in metropolitan areas experienced some degree of crowding (Hospital Emergency Departments: Crowded Conditions Vary among Hospitals and Communities, GAO-03-460). For example, two out of every three metropolitan hospitals reported going on ambulance diversion--asking ambulances to bypass their emergency departments and instead transport patients to other facilities. GAO was asked to examine information made available since 2003 on emergency department crowding. GAO examined three indicators of emergency department crowding--ambulance diversion, wait times, and patient boarding--and factors that contribute to crowding. To conduct this work, GAO reviewed national data; conducted a literature review of 197 articles; and interviewed officials from HHS and professional and research organizations, and individual subject-matter experts.

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