Why is the Wait so Long in the Emergency Room?

People often wonder why they wait so long to be treated in an emergency room even for a “simple” medical problem. There are a couple of things that influence how long it takes for a doctor to see you.

The first thing that causes delays in the emergency room is simply the fact that too many people are using the emergency room for medical conditions that are not true “emergencies.” Things like colds and flus are not emergency conditions, but unfortunately many people do not have family doctors so they end up going to their local emergency room. One of the main goals of the new federal healthcare legislation is to allow more people to have their own primary care doctor. Also, some people who do have primary care physicians still go to the emergency room because they think they will be seen more quickly and do not need an appointment. Either way, there are more people using the emergency room than should be.

Another thing which causes delay is the time of day that you go to the emergency room. Like many other businesses, there are peak hours and slower hours in an emergency room. The busiest times tend to be in the afternoon and early evening while mornings and late evening, particularly after midnight, tend to be the slowest times. Even though hospitals have more doctors and other staff on during busy periods of the day, it still generally takes longer to be seen if you show up at a peak time.

The seriousness of your condition also influences how long you wait. All emergency rooms have a system by which they “triage” or categorize patients according to how sick or urgent their condition it. Not surprisingly, the people who are most sick get seen first. Here are some examples of high priority patients: someone who comes in with a sudden onset of chest pain which might signal a heart attack; a person with severe headache which could indicate bleeding in the brain; or someone with severe abdominal pain that could be a sign of a perforated bowel. At the other end of the spectrum from those life-threatening conditions are the people who come in with things like simple low back pain. These routine patients will not get seen nearly as quickly as those who may be seriously ill.

Some emergency rooms have even gone so far as to create separate areas in the emergency room, one designated a “fast track” and the other the regular emergency area. In this set up, there are actually two separate teams of nurses and doctors who take care of the patients.

The long lines at emergency rooms have led to the increase in urgi-care centers. These are stand-alone medical facilities which take walk-in customers and function much like an emergency room, especially for routine illnesses. These so-call “doc-in-a-box” locations do not handle true medical emergencies and instead limit themselves to things such as minor traumas and routine infections. Although they have doctors on staff, many patients are seen just by a Physician Assistant or a Nurse Practitioner.

Unfortunately, whether you go to a regular emergency room or an urgi-care center, and whether you have a serious condition or a minor one, there are a lot of medical mistakes that occur in the emergency room setting.