OBJECTIVE: Emergency department overcrowding sometimes results in diversion of ambulances to other locations. We sought to determine the resulting prehospital delays for cardiac patients.
METHODS: Data on consecutive patients with chest pain who were transported to Toronto hospitals by ambulance were obtained for a 4-month period in 1997 and a 4-month period in 1999, which represented periods of low and high emergency department overcrowding respectively. Multivariate analyses were used to model 90th percentile system response (initiation of 9-1-1 call to arrival on scene), on-scene (arrival on scene to departure from scene) and transport (departure from scene to arrival at hospital) intervals. Predictor variables were study period (1997 or 1999), day of the week, time of day, geographic location of the patient, dispatch priority, case severity, return priority and number of other patients with chest pain transported within 2 hours of the index transport.
RESULTS: A total of 3609 patients (mean age 66.3 years, 50.3% female) who met the study criteria were transported by ambulance during the 2 study periods. There were no significant differences in patient characteristics between the 2 periods, despite the fact that more patients were transported during the second period (p < 0.001). The 90th percentile system response interval increased by 11.3% from the first to the second period (9.7 v. 10.8 min, p < 0.001), whereas the on-scene interval decreased by 8.2% (28.0 v. 25.7 min, p < 0.001). The longest delay was in the transport interval, which increased by 28.4% from 1997 to 1999 (13.4 v. 17.2 min, p < 0.001). In multivariate analyses, the study period (1997 v. 1999) remained a significant predictor of longer transport interval (p < 0.001) and total prehospital interval (p = 0.004).
INTERPRETATION: An increase in overcrowding in emergency departments was associated with a substantial increase in the system response interval and the ambulance transport interval for patients with chest pain.
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