Health & Human Services

Not-So-Happy Holidays in the Emergency Room

There are a number of reasons emergency rooms get chaotic around the holidays -- some of which may be surprising.
by | December 24, 2015
A man looks at Christmas trees in the hospital. (AP/Havre Daily News, Nikki Carlson)

Offices across America tend to clear out this time of year for the holiday season, but there's one workplace that’s in overdrive right now: the emergency room.

Orlando, Fla., is one of the most trafficked cities in the United States during the holidays, primarily because of its proximity to Walt Disney World. Just ask Vidor Friedman, an ER doctor at Florida Hospital Celebration Health, the closest hospital to the theme park where families flock for winter vacation.

“Every year we see a huge volume increase -- up to an extra 50 to 100 patients per day,” he said. “Because these are people often on vacation, we aren’t able to access their medical records, which adds another layer of complication.”

There are a number of reasons emergency rooms get chaotic around the holidays: People are drinking more and eating less healthy, cases of depression often spike and colds and flus are common.

“The most common things I see are gastrointestinal issues -- people don’t watch their salt intake this time of year -- and issues dealing with heart disease and depression,” said Friedman.

But emergency room doctors in destination cities aren't the only ones facing a hectic few weeks.

James Williams, an ER doctor in Lubbock, Texas, which few would call a destination city, says there's a roughly 10 percent uptick of patients during this time of year -- many of whom come in for accidents involving Christmas lights. (The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated that there were 15,000 holiday decorating-related injuries in November and December 2012.) In addition to the issues that holiday festivities bring, Williams also sees an increase in elective procedures like laser eye surgery and skin biopsies this time of year. That's likely because people have hit their deductibles for the year and want to take advantage of cheaper, non-emergency surgeries before their health insurance renews in January.

Primary-care offices are also typically closed during this time, so even if someone isn’t traveling, their options for care are emergency rooms or urgent care clinics. Urgent care clinics, however, aren’t equipped to handle more serious or life-threatening conditions.

In a poll conducted by the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP), 71 percent of emergency physicians said they treat patients every day who end up in the ER after first seeking help at urgent care clinics that weren't equipped to care for them. More than half of ER doctors say urgent care clinics are marketing themselves as alternatives to the ER, which they say sends a dangerous public health message.

"Many people may feel they are saving time or money by going first to urgent care, but in instances of serious illness, that loss of time can be dangerous," said Jay Kaplan, president of ACEP.

There isn’t much hospitals can do to alleviate the influx of patients because doctors and nurses want time off during the holidays, too. It's just the realities of the job, said Friedman.

“We have to [be] very proactive in our staffing this time of year, but really, it’s what we’re here for, and I’m happy to help."

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