Delaying Health Care for the Big Game

It's down to the final play of the Super Bowl and you're choking on a pretzel -- what's a sports fan to do?

You're more likely to watch the game-winning kick than seek medical care, according to a new report.

Physicians at Children's Hospital Boston, who collected data from emergency rooms in Boston during the Red Sox's run to the World Series in October 2004, found that patient volume dipped significantly during the most important postseason contests.

The authors used the Nielsen television ratings to determine the magnitude of a sporting contest: the higher the rating, the more important they considered the game. The findings, published in today's edition of Annals of Emergency Medicine, indicate that the games with the highest Nielsen television ratings -- Game 4 of the World Series and Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, both of which were series-clinching contests for the Red Sox -- were associated with lower emergency department volume than games with lower television viewership.

Based on their data, the authors believe that one can predict how busy an emergency room will be based on how "big" the game is. This does not come as a surprise to many emergency medicine physicians, who have found they see far fewer patients in their hospitals at times when there is a major sporting event being played.

"That seems to hold true in many occasions," said Dr. Guillermo Pierluisi, an emergency medicine physician at the Medical College of Georgia. "Folks with nonemergent conditions -- sometimes even those with emergent conditions such as chest pain -- tend to wait until the televised event is over to visit the emergency department."

Even when patients were already in the emergency department before the start of a contest, some doctors noted a change in the way their families behaved once the game was under way.

"Family members gather around the TV in our waiting room instead of waiting with the patient in the room during the sporting events," said Dr. Peter Anagnostopoulos of the Austin Medical Center in Austin, Minn. "The patient may have multiple family members present with only one person in the room with the patient and the remainder of the family in the waiting room watching the event on TV. When the games are over, then they all want to come back to the room with the patient."

After the contests are over, many physicians working in emergency rooms noted a spike in volume that they attributed to patients having delayed walking away from the TV until the final outcome had been determined. However, some doctors believed that there were far more significant events than sporting contests in determining whether a patient was likely to travel to the emergency room.

"I must tell you, our local emergency departments are busy almost all the time," said Dr. Richard O'Brien, spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians who practices in Scranton, Pa. "Parenthetically, in my 20-plus years experience, it seems only terribly cold weather -- and the risk of danger just to travel -- keeps people in their homes."

This might just be the best news an overworked emergency room staff could possibly hear, since the next Super Bowl is Feb. 5 -- short of their team winning the big game itself.