A Tale of Two Emergency Rooms

Jul 6, 2012, 6:00 PM, Posted by Julia Lynch

This post is part of a series in which Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) leaders, scholars, grantees and alumni offer perspectives on the U.S. Supreme Court rulings on the Affordable Care Act. Julia Lynch, PhD, is an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Lynch is a recipient of a 2006 RWJF Investigator Award in Health Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania and an alumna of the RWJF Scholars in Health Policy Research program (2003-2005).

The first emergency room is one you know: the ED in your nearest inner-city or rural hospital. There you’ll find trauma cases, heart failures, emergency appendectomies, heroic rescues by doctors and nurses working through the night, just like on TV. But also, waiting in chairs (lots of chairs), the frequent fliers, the preventable complications of asthma and diabetes, the people awaiting primary care in the worst possible medical environment for it. These are America’s emergency rooms.

And then there are Italian emergency rooms. As an expat living in Italy, I’ve navigated hundreds of miles of red tape to get a car registered, a telephone line installed, a tax ID number. I’ve paid notaries hundred upon hundreds of Euro for the stamps and forms needed to make the transactions of daily life (renting an apartment, selling a car) legal. Just imagine the emergency room. Better yet, don’t. I’ll tell you about it.

Some years ago, just after my husband and I had moved to Italy for my research, he cut his finger while preparing dinner. It looked bad, but it was Saturday night, and the one doctor we knew of who accepted our weird Belgian insurance policy for expats wasn’t in his office. So when the cut failed to stop bleeding overnight, we reluctantly made our way to the city hospital, asked for directions to the pronto soccorso (literally “immediate aid”), and prepared ourselves for a very long wait.

In the area to which the hospital greeter had directed us, we found a closed door, and three empty chairs in the hallway. After some confused wandering around, we knocked on the door, and once again asked for directions to the elusive ER waiting room. A doctor poked his head out, pointed to the three chairs, and said he’d be with us as soon as he finished patching up a motorcycle accident.

How long would that take, we wondered? And how many heart attacks, asthma attacks, and gunshot wounds would come in while we were waiting?

But the remaining chair in the hallway remained empty; and within ten minutes, the very same doctor who had answered our knock glued my husband’s finger back together and sent us on our way. Minimal wait, one doctor, no paperwork, and no charge—despite the fact that neither of us had an Italian National Health Service (NHS) card. Our Belgian insurance policy would not be billed. The doctor explained proudly that Italy’s NHS looked after everyone, even visitors.

And that’s not all: we didn’t know at the time that there is a designated doctor for every quartiere (neighborhood) in Italy, called the guardia medica, on call for minor nighttime emergencies. The doctors of the guardia medica, which I’ve also since had the occasion to call, are paid by the Italian state. They make house calls, with a little black bag and everything. The doctor for our quartiere could have glued my husband up on a Saturday night, in the comfort of our own home, again at no charge.

I know you must be thinking “But all this must be terribly expensive!” It’s true. Since our visit to the Italian ER, many patients of the NHS have been subjected to new out-of-pocket charges for medicines and specialist visits, and lines have grown longer in emergency departments as regional health budgets have come under pressure. But primary and emergency care is still free at the point of service. And Italy still spends considerably less than its neighbors do on health care: $2,870 per capita in 2008, compared to $3,129 in the UK, $3,696 in France, $4,063 in the Netherlands—and $7,538 in the U.S. Even so, income disparities in both access to care and health outcomes remain small in Italy, and most readers of this blog will know that Italy outperforms the U.S. on virtually every indicator of health and well-being.

Where does this tale of two emergency rooms leave us? The Affordable Care Act (ACA) brings us nowhere near a National Health Service on the Italian or British model. And not even the most ardent advocates of cost-effective medicine can imagine a way, under the ACA, to reduce our health care budget by 60 percent to bring us in line with what Italy spends on a per capita basis.

What the ACA does do is bring us one step closer to being able to say -- as that Italian ER doctor could -- that our health care system “looks after everyone.” It may even bring us nearer to the day when the waiting rooms of our emergency departments aren’t packed with patients seeking primary care, and care for complications resulting from a lack of primary care. Perhaps even a day when our emergency departments look a little more like three empty chairs in a hallway.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.