Emergency Room Wait Times Increasing

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the average patient will wait nearly an hour to see a doctor, up from 38 minutes ten years ago.

The reason?  Fewer emergency departments and more visits to them.  Emergency room visits increased by almost 1/3 (32 percent) between 1996 and 2006 with 119 million visits in 2006.  At the same time there were 300 fewer emergency departments to handle the need.  In addition, ED beds fill up with patients who are waiting for a bed to free up so they can be admitted to the hospital.

In 2005 one in every five Americans made a visit to an emergency room.  Babies, elderly people, patients on Medicaid, and African-Americans used emergency rooms at even higher rates. Babies have the highest rate of emergency room visits, and African-Americans go to the emergency room twice as often as whites.

Although the average wait time was almost an hour, median wait time was 31 minutes which meant that half of patients were seen within a half hour, although some waited much longer.  Once admitted 7 out of 10 people spent less than 4 hours in the ER, with the median time 2.6 hours.

The busiest hours in the emergency department are around 7 p.m. when there are three times the number of patients that are there at 6 in the morning.  Overall, an average of 227 people are admitted to a hospital emergency room every minute in the US.  Visits are highest in the winter and dip somewhat in the summer and fall.

Most visits are made outside of regular medical office business hours — 62 percent of adult visits and 73 percent of children’s visits.

About 13 percent of people who came to the ER were admitted to the hospital with 2 percent going to intensive care. Half of admissions to the hospital are now made through the emergency room, which increased from 36 percent in 1996.

Ninety percent of patients saw a physician during their visit, with nine percent seeing a physician’s assistant and another four percent being examined and treated by a nurse practitioner.  77 percent had some sort of medical test or x-ray, and 77 percent either had medicine in the emergency department or a prescription to take at home.

Private insurance paid for 40 percent of visits, 26 percent were paid through Medicaid, 17 through Medicare, and 17 percent of patients had no insurance.

Data in the CDC report come from the 2006 National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NHAMCS) which gathers and analyzes information from hospital emergency rooms and outpatient departments.

Read another article about the ER situation in Time Magazine online.

SOURCE: Pitts et al., National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey: 2006 Emergency Department Summary, National Health Statistics Reports, Number 7, August 2008.

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