Acute Care Hospitals & Their Role in Healthcare

As the world’s population continues to age, the demand for acute care hospitals will only increase. According to the latest Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Hospital Compare List, there are approximately 4,749 acute care hospitals in the U.S. The majority of those hospitals, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ)—almost 70%–are part of a healthcare system. This trend may make these facilities an even more significant factor in how populations are treated. Their critical role isn’t expected to diminish and is part of the broader ecosystem of primary care and public health measures.

What is Acute Care?

Acute care describes a level of healthcare wherein a patient needs immediate yet brief treatment. This treatment could be in response to a severe episode related to a chronic condition, trauma, or during recovery from surgery, among others.

Acute is considered short-term; the opposite of chronic care or long-term care. Acute care is typically provided in a hospital setting by a variety of experienced clinicians that have the capacity to diagnose, care, and treat a wide range of conditions, symptoms, and injuries. An acute care hospital is one of five types of hospitals in the U.S. health system.

There are also acute care clinics—often called urgent care—wherein physicians and nurses can triage certain health episodes. However, they may not have the advanced equipment and expertise as an acute care setting in a hospital.

Are Acute Care Clinics and Hospitals Seeing a Rise in Visits?

According to a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine published in 2018, emergency department visits from 2008 to 2015 for low-acuity conditions(infections, minor traumas) dropped by 36%. Meanwhile, visits to acute care facilities, such as urgent care centers, grew by 140%.

Acute care hospitals, which function somewhat differently than long-term care hospitals, have also become more popular. Does this mean the E.R. is no longer a go-to for many across the country? Unfortunately, no, and much of that has to do with several factors: lack of accessible primary care, the uninsured, and other issues related to the inability to have regular and sustained care from a G.P. or specialty physician.

Acute Care Settings Serve a Variety of Patients

Patients seen in acute care settings have a diverse range of medical issues. So, they need a group of clinicians that have a variety of skills and typically need many different types of equipment—more so in an acute care hospital than an acute care clinic.

For example, a patient may visit an acute care hospital with unexplained abdominal pain. In a doctor’s assessment of the patient, he or she may order a variety of tests, so a lab is necessary, as well as things like C.T. scans. While the next patient may have a broken wrist, requiring x-rays and casting materials. These different emergency medical needs account for as much as one-third of outpatient services in the U.S.

Because of this range in patient needs, acute care settings must have access to a number of assets to properly treat them. The demand for acute care is also unpredictable. An acute care hospital runs 24/7 with ebbs and flows. They have to provide standby capacity as well to accommodate any type of public health crisis like a disease outbreak or incident with mass casualties.

Understanding all the unique challenges of the acute care setting is vital to being able to serve their needs.

The Contribution of Acute Care in the U.S. Healthcare System

Acute care responds to immediate medical emergencies, regardless of the cause. Acute care actually supports the need for stronger healthcare systems versus a disconnected approach. This “patchwork” of primary, specialty, and emergency care is delivered in a variety of settings, and unfortunately, there are still many challenges to sharing medical records and coordination of care.

Ideally, acute care should be integrated with preventive and primary care, so that patients have the ability to understand their health better and play a bigger part in improving it.

Part of this is what comes after acute care. When a patient is discharged from either a hospital or clinic—how can organizations minimize readmissions? Clinicians need to work with patients and their families to define next steps. That could include going to some long-term care facility should the patient be unable to return home. If the patient does return home, then they still need follow-up visits with their primary care physician or specialty physician to ensure that recovery continues and that patients remain on needed prescription medications.