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Extreme cold boosts ED visits for slips and falls, hospitals report


By Rachel Landen
Posted: January 7, 2014 - 1:30 pm ET
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As temperatures dropped to record lows this week in parts of the U.S., patient volumes at hospitals caught in the weather phenomenon known as the polar vortex did the opposite.

“Our emergency departments saw triple the number of patients they normally would on a Sunday,” said Terry Lynam, vice president of public relations for North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System. As a result, the system called in additional staff for the day, prompted by a system North Shore-LIJ has in place for monitoring activity across its emergency departments.

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“The vast majority of the patients were slips and falls and fractures and head trauma,” Lynam said.

The region served by the Great Neck, N.Y.-based system saw nearly a foot of snow fall late last week, coupled with temperatures in the single digits. But even as the area has begun to warm up—Tuesday's high is expected to hit 14 degrees and the end of the week could bring temperatures in the 40s and 50s—Lynam cautioned that the risk for falls is still heightened as temperatures rise during the day, the snow melts and then the mercury drops overnight.

“When you walked out the door Sunday, it just looked wet, and it wasn't clear that it was ice,” Lynam said. “It was one of those days that it was just not apparent when you stepped out your front door what you were getting into.”

The same has been true in Chicago, where temperatures dropped to as low as minus 20 degrees, with wind chill values hitting lower than minus 40 on Monday. But even with the arctic cold, the emergency department at Northwestern Memorial Hospital hasn't seen a surge in cases of frostbite and hypothermia.

“The most common thing has been falls, people taking major spills,” said Dr. David Zull, an attending physician in the emergency department at Northwestern. According to Zull, people seem to be more aware and cautious about limiting their exposure to the cold. “Patients are alerted not to go out,” he said.

And that's especially important because when temperatures are as low as they have been, hypothermia and frostbite can take hold in minutes.

“Use wind chill as a guide,” Zull said. “Certainly any wind chill greater than minus 10 puts you at risk for high injury, no matter how many layers.”

Still, in Detroit, where a wind chill warning continues to persist, the emergency department at Henry Ford Hospital had treated only two cases of frostbite as of Monday afternoon. The greatest impact to operations was on scheduled surgeries, where 16 had been canceled, mostly by patients because of the weather.

As part of general discharge procedures, Lynam and Zull said, social workers help find shelter for patients who might be vulnerable to further harm from the cold after they leave because they are homeless or lack adequate heating in their homes.

Follow Rachel Landen on Twitter: @MHrlanden


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