DOI: 10.1177/09697330241238333 ISSN: 0969-7330

Emergency department crowding: An examination of older adults and vulnerability

Meghan MacIsaac, Elizabeth Peter
  • Issues, ethics and legal aspects

Emergency departments in many nations worldwide have been struggling for many years with crowding and the subsequent provision of care in hallways and other unconventional spaces. While this issue has been investigated and analyzed from multiple perspectives, the ethical dimensions of the place of emergency department care have been underexamined. Specifically, the impacts of the place of care on patients and their caregivers have not been robustly explored in the literature. In this article, a feminist ethics and human geography framing is utilized to argue that care provision in open and unconventional spaces in the emergency department can be unethical, as vulnerability can be amplified by the place of care for patients and their caregivers. The situational and pathogenic vulnerability of patients can be heightened by the place of the emergency department and by the constraints to healthcare providers’ capacity to promote patient comfort, privacy, communication, and autonomy in this setting. The arrangements of care in the emergency department are of particular concern for older adults given the potential increased risks for vulnerability in this population. As such, hallway healthcare can reflect the normalized inequities of structural ageism. Recommendations are provided to address this complicated ethical issue, including making visible the moral experiences of patients and their caregivers, as well as those of healthcare providers in the emergency department, advocating for a systems-level accounting for the needs of older adults in the emergency department and more broadly in healthcare, as well as highlighting the need for further research to examine how to foster autonomy and care in the emergency department to reduce the risk for vulnerabilities.