ER Waits�How Long Is Too Long?

November 12, 2008
Special Feature

Sitting in an ER waiting for medical attention is no picnic, but how long will a patient wait before getting angry? According to one study, the tipping point is 3 � hours.

Sitting in an ER waiting for medical attention is no picnic, but how long will a patient wait before getting angry? According to one study, the tipping point is 3 ½ hours. When doctors from Beaumont Hospital in Troy, MI, took a look at patient satisfaction surveys from ER patients, they found that those who waited less than three and a half hours had satisfaction scores in the 83rd percentile, compared to similar ERs around the country. After that time, satisfaction scores plummeted to the 49th percentile and, after 4 hours, went down to the 24th percentile.

Some ERs are trying to cut wait times and improve patient satisfaction by assigning doctors to triage areas and allowing patients with long-projected waits to use a private room if one is available. One hospital tried another, more controversial tactic: giving patients inflated estimated wait times, based on the test or procedure being performed. The times were increased by 20% over the mean wait time, so that most patients spent less time in the ER than they thought they would.

Overcrowded ERs are a growing trend. Statistics from the federal government show that there were 119 million ER visits in 2006, a 36% increase over a 10-year period. During that time, the number of ERs dropped from 4,019 to 3,833. And according to a study in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, it’s not a flood of uninsured patients who are causing the overcrowding, but insured patients who usually get treated in a doctor’s office. The study authors suggest that the real issue may be the inability of these patients to get prompt care at their doctor’s office.