Hospital emergency rooms are often the first option for those needing immediate medical attention. But the nation’s ERs are also increasingly the first line of defense against the ravages of our nation’s opioid epidemic. More and more people are arriving at hospitals in the throes of an opioid overdose or presenting with other conditions caused or exacerbated by their abuse of these powerful drugs.


As a result, ER physicians, nurses, and staffs are facing new and overwhelming demands in an environment which is already full of overwhelming challenges – creating an increased risk of emergency room negligence.

Skyrocketing Number of Opioid-Related ER Visits

In 2016, nearly 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, two-thirds of them from opioid overdoses. A March 2018 report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention contains some startling statistics about how the opioid crisis is impacting the nation’s emergency rooms:

  • More than 142,000 people were taken to emergency departments for opioid overdoses during the 15-month period from July 2016 to September 2017.
  • The 142,557 emergency room visits in 45 states represented almost a 30 percent year-over-year increase.
  • In the 16 states that have suffered high rates of overdose deaths, the jump was even higher, at 34.5 percent.
  • In the Midwest, including Michigan, the increase in opioid-related ER visits was even more astonishing, with such visits jumping by 69.7 percent in just one year.

Diagnostic and Treatment Challenges

The increasing number of patients arriving in ERs with opioid-related problems, including overdoses, presents ER physicians with a host of issues that they may not have the time or resources to address properly. This can pose serious risks to patients – and to the doctors, nurses, and other staff treating them. These are on top of the inherent risks of overdose deaths or nonfatal opioid-related conditions and complications.

These challenges include:

  • Drug-seekers. Those seeking opioids who can’t find them elsewhere often go to emergency rooms for one simple reason: that’s where the drugs are. Drug-seekers often show up in the ER complaining of pain-related conditions to obtain prescriptions for pain-killing opioids. Since acute pain can be difficult to diagnose objectively, doctors face the difficult task of determining whether a patient presenting with pain is indeed in need of treatment or is simply there to feed a habit. Negligently prescribing opioids to a patient, especially if it results in injury or harm to the patient or others, could be the basis for a medical malpractice claim.
  • What did they take? The increase in opioid deaths can be traced, in part, to the increasing strength and mixture of multiple opiates. More opioid abusers are ingesting not only one opioid, such as heroin but many powerful narcotics at once -such as fentanyl or even carfentanil, which is used to tranquilize elephants. Not knowing what is coursing through a patient’s veins can make it difficult to choose the right course of treatment.
  • Opioids or something else. Making correct diagnoses with limited information and limited time is one of the hardest parts of being an ER physician. Neurologic, musculoskeletal, cardiopulmonary, gastrointestinal, or other complications may present along with opioid toxicity, or mirror the effects of an opioid overdose, making it even more difficult to determine the cause of a patient’s distress. Many times, however, a missed diagnosis can constitute professional negligence.
  • Substance abuse/mental health treatment. With drugs such as naxolone, which can counteract opioid overdoses, ERs have had increasing success treating the acute, immediate medical episodes related to opioid abuse. But ERs are typically not equipped to address and treat the underlying problems of addiction and other mental health issues. This could lead to a lawsuit against the hospital and its staff.
  • Increased strain on doctors and resources. With so many more people visiting emergency rooms, not only because of the opioid epidemic but because it is often the only care option for those lacking insurance or financial resources, existing ER capabilities are being stretched even further. This problem is especially acute in rural areas, where the opioid epidemic has hit the hardest and doctors are in short supply. According to the National Rural Health Association, there are only 13.1 physicians for every 10,000 people in rural areas, compared to 31.2 for every 10,000 urban residents.

Talk to an Experienced Emergency Room Negligence Attorney

While the opioid epidemic is changing emergency room care, one thing that doesn’t change is the duty of hospitals to staff emergency rooms with qualified physicians and personnel to handle patient traffic. Regardless of any extenuating circumstances, overcrowding, or understaffing, ER personnel must comply with standard health and safety protocols and procedures to ensure that the medical care they provide is both safe and effective.

When patients suffer because doctors and other emergency room health care professionals breach the standard of care, the medical malpractice attorneys at Sommers Schwartz stand ready to hold them accountable.

Please contact us today for a free consultation to review your case.

Kenneth T. Watkins

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Kenneth T. Watkins

Kenneth T. Watkins is an accomplished trial attorney and Senior Shareholder with Sommers Schwartz. Over the course of his career, he has obtained numerous multimillion-dollar settlements. His achievements include one of the largest seven-digit medical malpractice cases in Macomb County in 2008, and his election to membership in the exclusive Million Dollar Verdict Club.