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Michigan congresswoman calls for national task force on emergency department patient boarding crisis

A nurse talks to a patient on a stretcher in the hallway of the emergency department at Sparrow Hospital.
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
A nurse talks to a patient on a stretcher in the hallway of the emergency department at Sparrow Hospital.

Michigan Congresswoman Debbie Dingell is calling for a national task force on a crisis called patient boarding.

That's when someone is held in the emergency department for hours or days because they can't be moved to a hospital room, generally because there's not enough staff to care for them in that hospital room.

Dingell said emergency departments have become a choke point in hospitals across the country. If the emergency department can't transfer patients to hospital rooms when there's not enough staff to care for them, then they can't quickly help people in the waiting room or arriving in ambulances.

"I've heard stories of patients who've died in the waiting room while they're awaiting treatment," Dingell said. "We have a shortage of doctors, a shortage of nurses, and it's going to get worse, not better."

Dingell (D-MI) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) led 42 of their House colleagues in sending a bipartisan letter to Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra urging the department to convene a task force to address the growing public health crisis of emergency department (ED) patient boarding.

“Even with the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic now behind us, hospital emergency departments all over the country are at, or even past, the breaking point, with no relief in sight,” the lawmakers wrote. “It led to a nurse in Washington calling 911 as her ED became completely overwhelmed with waiting patients and boarders. Her story is not unique — it is happening right now in EDs across the country, every day. To paint a broader picture of the distressing scope of the ED boarding problem, the American College of Emergency Physicians collected hundreds of firsthand accounts from emergency physicians who have shared their stories from the front lines.”

Dingell said the issue is extremely urgent, and urged DHHS not to wait until there is another crisis like the recent pandemic, or a large-scale natural disaster.

"We are not prepared," she said. "And we have to deal with it."

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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