Many substitute emergency care for primary care - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

Many substitute emergency care for primary care

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By Len Kiese - bio | email

ALBANY, GA (WALB) - As job losses grow, more Americans are losing their health insurance. Emergency rooms are seeing more of those people show up with fairly simple ailments because they can't get treatment at a doctor's office. It's crowding the system and taking attention away from real emergencies.  

The sign says emergency but that's not all that Palmyra Medical Center's physicians and nurses see these days. "Coughs, colds, strains, sprains," said Palmyra Emergency Room Director Mark Swicord.

It's a trend that's been growing. "For the past several years, we've been seeing an increase of patients coming to the ER because they didn't have a primary care physician," said Swicord. And the economy is sure to leave more people without money and with a choice--everyday items or healthcare insurance?

"There's a significant percentage of our population that are underinsured, whether they don't have insurance or they're on some form of government subsidy, those numbers do appear to be growing," said Swicord.

Nationwide, more visits to the ER are cramping hospitals. The American College of American Physicians recently polled more than 1,200 physicians. About 83-percent are seeing more patients who lost their jobs and their health insurance. Nearly 90-percent saw patients who were turned away elsewhere for care. About 73-percent saw patients who had serious medical problems for delayed care.

"With the economy taking a downswing and as people lose jobs, lose their health benefits, we definitely expect to see more people coming," said Swicord. Swicord says visits are up but they can't directly link it to the economy just yet.

As more private doctors turn away patients, he expects the ER to pick up the slack. "That's why they come here because they know that we'll see them and we'll see them without any type of payment and a physician's office will ask for payment up front and if they can't pay, the physician is not required to see the patient," said Swicord.

Most emergency rooms have to see a patient regardless of ability to pay. The economy is as unpredictable as an illness. "So we expect to keep seeing more and more people," said Swicord.

That will swamp an already busy business--another result of a sick economy.

To deal with an abundance of non-emergency patients, Palmyra now has a Fast Track program. The system allows them to get those patients in and out quicker.

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