Emergency-room wait times increasing nationally

By Jason A. Smith


The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Wednesday, announced that wait times have reached nearly one hour in emergency rooms nationwide. That figure is the result of calculations from a survey of 362 hospitals around the country.

Dr. Stephen Pitts is an associate professor of emergency medicine at Emory University, who contributed to the CDC's report. Pitts, a fellow at the agency's National Center for Health Statistics, said wait times in emergency rooms have risen 32 percent in the last decade, compared to a population increase of 11 percent. "Of all the patients in hospitals in 2006, 50 percent came through the ER," he said. "That's a marked increase from 10 years ago, when only 36 percent [did so]."

As people visit emergency rooms in greater numbers, Pitts noted, the numbers of such facilities and hospital beds available are decreasing. "The hospital shortage in America is having an effect on ER waits," he said. "If people have to be hospitalized, they're looking at spending hours ... waiting for a bed. People go to a waiting room and it is packed ... because the ER is full of patients who should be in hospital beds."

According to the professor, the rise in emergency-room visits in the country comes from a source some people might not expect. Pitts said it is not people without health insurance, but insured people who have doctors, who are largely responsible for the increase.

The reason for that, he explained, comes from a shortage of primary-care physicians. "Not enough [of them] are able to squeeze you into their schedules."

In addition, he said a majority of medical students in recent years have chosen a specialty, rather pursuing a career in primary care.

Pitts added that the role of emergency departments as a whole has gone through a transformation in recent years. Some of those changes do not benefit hospitals or patients in the long run. "[The emergency room has] become the front door to the hospital, where a lot of diagnostic work is done, instead of the hospital."

Because of these and other problems in hospitals, he said the country is in need of massive healthcare reform. "It's not just an ER problem," he added. "It's a reflection of a system that's failing."

In Henry County, hospital leaders have been active in efforts to improve the level of service given to emergency-room patients. Henry Medical Center's Chief Nursing Officer Lynnette Ball, said the hospital's board of directors has enlisted the help of Blue Jay Consulting to "change our work processes" for patients who need emergency care.

"[We want to] shorten our patients' length of stay in the ER, decrease wait times ... [and] reduce the number of patients that come in and leave before they get treated."

Ball said the board's plan was already in motion months before the CDC released its report. A portion of the desire to improve the hospital's conditions, she said, is a result of the 60,000 patients who visited its emergency room last year.

"We see our emergency department getting busier, and we need to improve our [procedures] to accommodate the growth," she said.

The nursing executive said she suspects other hospitals in the nation will be engaged in similar efforts to improve practices in their emergency rooms, in light of the CDC's report.