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As many as 1 in 3 Americans have sought emergency room care in the past two years. That's according to a poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Many of those who answered site convenience, even if they find the experience frustrating. Abe Aboraya of member station WMFE in Orlando reports there are ways to make the experience better.
ABE ABORAYA, BYLINE: Skipper Beck was having a great Friday. He was playing beach football on Florida's Gulf Coast. Then he hurt himself.
SKIPPER BECK: I hit somebody a little bit too hard, little bit too low.
ABORAYA: Skipper's 36. He says by that evening, he couldn't rotate his shoulder. It was painful to lift any weight. He thought maybe he'd dislocated it, so he went to the ER. They ran some tests, put him in a sling and sent him on his way four-and-a-half hours later
BECK: Honestly, I felt like cattle. Kind of get me in, and get me out.
ABORAYA: Beck says the cost of his care was unreasonable, and he felt like the doctors didn't care about him. In fact, a quarter of the people NPR polled in Florida say ER care is fair or poor, and only a third say it was excellent. That's because emergency rooms are designed and built around life-or-death emergencies. But nearly 40 percent say they use the ER for non-urgent reason. They go because it's convenient, says Robert Blendon, a professor at Harvard's School of Public Health.
ROBERT BLENDON: Almost the third of people in Florida have used an emergency room during the last two years.
ABORAYA: There's this view that if you're not actually having an emergency, the people in the ER are poor and uninsured with no other way to get to a doctor. Blendon says that's an oversimplification. In fact, more than 80 percent of the people who used the ER actually had health insurance. His solution - the medical world needs to be more responsive. For instance, doctors could have evening or weekend hours or see patients on short notice when they're sick.
BLENDON: I'm hoping that we'll change a bit of the discussion that it's just all insurance because you have to have a place to go, and the hours have to also reflect the life of people.
ABORAYA: But ERs are important for patients and hospital revenue, so some hospitals are trying to make the actual ER experience more convenient. Some take appointments, for instance. Some find a niche, and Delilah Torres appreciates that.
DELILAH TORRES: There were many times I actually even waited before I even took Ryan to the emergency room just because I knew how stressful it is to sit at the waiting area for hours.
ABORAYA: Torres's 10-year-old son Ryan has down syndrome. He's had cancer and some other health issues as well. A few weeks ago, she had a much better experience Nemours Children's Hospital in Orlando. They brought Ryan into a special room with soothing music and toys, and they talked to Torres about what upsets him. She says Ryan is strong. It normally takes four nurses to put in an IV line or draw blood from Ryan.
TORRES: And this time, it was the first time that it actually only took two nurses to put a line on Ryan.
ABORAYA: The Nemours Children's Hospital is a new hospital in Central Florida with all the trimmings in the waiting room - bright colors, round, plushy cubby holes cut into the wall, free slushies. You can even hear the difference.
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ABORAYA: Cara Harwell's a nurse practitioner in the ER. She points to a sign that says REACH - respecting each awesome child here.
CARA HARWELL: We want the parents to self-identify that they have a child that has autism or a similar condition, like a sensory processing disorder or a mental health disorder.
ABORAYA: Harwell says the ER will help their patient satisfaction scores which has funding tied to it. And they're studying how it will affect other aspects of childcare.
HARWELL: If we can know what the child likes and doesn't like, we can prevent them from becoming agitated and reduce the use of sedatives and restraints.
ABORAYA: There's another reason to improve a visit to the ER. Hospital emergency rooms can be profitable, and parents like Delilah Torres will drive 30 minutes past another hospital to get to the one that better meets her needs. For NPR News, I'm Abe Aboraya in Orlando.
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