Emergency Department

Diversion Is Deadly

Every day, I get an email with all of the statistics from the previous day’s emergency department activity. The one statistic that can drive me crazy is the emergency department diversion hours. These occur when the ER goes on “divert” status which means that emergency squads are told to bypass our emergency department and take patients to some other hospital’s emergency department. We never close the emergency department and patients can still walk-in to the ER normally.

There are several reasons that the ER can go on divert:

  1. The ER itself is overwhelmed (for example, multiple critically ill patients arrive at the same time)
  2. We don’t have any empty beds on the nursing units to admit patients to from the ER
  3. We don’t have any ICU beds to admit patients to from the ER
  4. We don’t have enough inpatient nurses to take care of more admissions

Diversion is bad news for several reasons. First, and most importantly, it means that our hospital does not have the resources to care for the patients in our community at that particular time. A patient who lives 5 blocks away should not have to be taken to another hospital 15 miles away where their family and friends cannot easily visit. Second, it disrupts continuity of care. Patients who always get their care in one hospital and whose physicians practice at that hospital are best served by being taken care of by the doctors who know them the best. Third, it is bad business. Hospital admissions are the fuel that keeps the hospital running and patients arriving by squad are far more likely to be admitted to the hospital than those who walk in through the front door who are more likely to be treated and released.

Last year, our ER diversion hours reached record highs. Rather than being a rarity as it had been for more than a decade, it was becoming a regular occurrence, at least once a week. Our initial solution was to open up 4 new ER beds and 5 new inpatient beds to avoid the “no room at the inn” phenomenon. That helped but didn’t solve the entire problem entirely. So next, we asked the 5 whys.

The 5 whys was a concept developed by the founder of the Toyota Corporation, Sakichi Toyoda. His idea was that if you identify a problem, then you keep asking why it occurred through 5 layers of inquiry in order to get to the root of the problem and solve it. So, for example, you identify a problem that your medical students are passing out when holding retractors during pancreatic surgeries.

  1. Why are the medical students passing out? Because they are hypoglycemic.
  2. Why are they hypoglycemic? Because pancreas surgeries go on for 5 hours and the medical students haven’t had anything to eat.
  3. Why don’t they get something to eat before the start of surgeries? Because they are pre-rounding on their patients until 8:00 AM and all of the donuts in the physician lounge are gone by 7:00 AM.
  4. Why are all of the donuts gone by 7:00 AM? Because the donut company only brings 3 boxes of donuts even though the administrator in charge of donuts always orders 8 boxes of donuts.
  5. Why do they only bring 3 boxes rather than 8 boxes of donuts? Because the donut administrator always fills the donut order out in blue ink and faxes the order to the donut company and since the blue ink doesn’t fax well, the “8’s” look like “3’s”.

So, what is the solution to the syncopal medical students? Buy the donut administrator a pen with black ink.

We applied this principle to our emergency squad diversion problem. First, we looked at the what days of the week we were going on divert and found that over the course of a year, diversion hours peaked on Wednesdays, pretty regularly and pretty dramatically on Wednesdays. In contrast, diversion was very rare on Fridays, Saturdays, or Sundays. Next, we looked at when our emergency department admissions peaked and it was on Mondays, again, pretty regularly and dramatically peaked on Mondays. Next we looked at when our elective surgery admissions peaked and it was on Tuesdays, very consistently on Tuesdays.

So the solution wasn’t to bring in extra ER physicians on Wednesdays or open additional inpatient beds on Wednesdays. The solution was to move one of our busiest orthopedic surgeons from operating on Tuesdays to operating on Thursdays. What had been happening was that we would get a bolus of emergency department visits on Mondays followed by a bolus of joint replacement surgery admissions  on Tuesdays and then by Wednesdays, we’d be out of inpatient beds. By Fridays, the Monday and Tuesday admissions would be ready for discharge and then we’d have excess inpatient capacity through the weekend. By moving the orthopedic surgeon to Thursdays, we evened out the admissions over the course of the week and presto, the ER diversion hours plummeted.

The 5 whys can keep you from making stupid decisions. Getting back to our medical students who were passing out in the OR, if we had stopped with the first why, we may have banned medical students from holding retractors. If we had stopped with the second why, we may have told the surgeon that he needs to finish his pancreas surgeries in 4 hours. If we had stopped with the third why, we may have required the medical students to come in an hour earlier to do their rounding. If we had stopped with the fourth why, we may have fired the donut company. It was only after the fifth why that the solution of buying a 99¢ black ballpoint pen to fix the problem became apparent.

December 17, 2016


By James Allen, MD

I am a Professor Emeritus of Internal Medicine at the Ohio State University and former Medical Director of Ohio State University East Hospital