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Emergency medicine is an essential part of our public health system. In a medical emergency, timely access to quality care can sometimes mean the difference between life and death. 

When a person decides to make a trip to the emergency room instead of making an appointment with their primary care physician or visiting an urgent care center, it is because they believe they need immediate medical attention. However, it has almost become an expectation in our country that if you visit an emergency room, you should be prepared for a lengthy stay in the waiting room, followed by a long wait for medical attention. 

Not all states are equal when it comes to the average time patients spend waiting for emergency medical attention. Colorado and Utah are both known for having short ER wait times, averaging just 13 minutes. On the opposite end of the spectrum, residents in Maryland will wait 53 minutes on average. However, these averages are not always representative of an individual patient’s experience. There are some situations where a patient will be seen immediately, and others where they will be forced to wait for hours.

Healthcare professionals pride themselves on providing the best care for all the patients who trust them with their health and wellness. It’s understandable for a patient to be frustrated when they are forced to sit in an ER waiting room while they watch other patients being admitted ahead of them, but it’s also important that we understand why this is the case. 

Triage

The emergency room is a multilayered operation with various moving parts. When a patient first enters the ER, they register with a triage nurse who is specially trained to assess the situation of each patient to decide the proper procession of treatment based on the severity of their symptoms. While the nurse is always focused on the patient in front of them, they must also consider the complex system as a whole.

For example, a person who presents with chest pain or trouble breathing will likely be treated before a patient whose symptoms indicate a broken arm, regardless of who entered the building first. The order a patient is seen isn’t always a straightforward calculation. Part of the reason is the urgency of each individual patient’s condition, but there are other factors that play a role.

All The Moving Parts

It’s estimated that 70-80% of patients are admitted to the hospital through the emergency department. Others may be admitted because of elective surgery. In order for a patient to be admitted, there must be a bed available for them in the right part of the hospital. From there, everything from testing to treatment to patient discharge affect the system as a whole. 

Hospitals only have a finite amount of resources, such as x-ray machines, MRI machines and staff. So, if there is a long line of patients who require an MRI for diagnosis and subsequent treatment, that means they’re also staying longer in a bed that could otherwise be used for new incoming patients. 

Unique Situations That Can Clog the System

When there’s severe weather or a major catastrophe in the area surrounding a hospital, it’s likely that patients will be required to sustain an abnormally long wait prior to receiving medical attention. Medical literature has also shown that there is likely to be a longer wait on public holidays. 

It would be nice if we could all pick and choose when we need emergency care so we can avoid the busy days, but life doesn’t work like that. 

Coping With The System

When it comes to emergency room visits, my motto is to hope for the best while expecting the worst. Entering the situation with that perspective can help you manage expectations in the case that you can’t be seen immediately. You may sometimes see signs on the highway advertising something like, “Current wait: 5 minutes” for a certain hospital. While that can be comforting on your drive there, it’s not uncommon for that wait time to change rapidly, so don’t get your hopes up.

It can be difficult to trust a system that operates largely behind the scenes, but you should take peace in knowing that no one has forgotten about you and there is a team of people working to ensure that you can receive treatment as soon as possible. 

While patience is key, it’s also important that you advocate for yourself. If your situation worsens while you’re waiting, be sure to inform the personnel on site. The point of triage is to care for the sickest people first. If your condition is deteriorating, it’s likely that your wait time will be shortened. However, it’s important to remember that other emergencies may still take priority. 

Those in the medical community are constantly working to improve processes in a way that benefits a hospital’s valued patients. While there will likely always be patients who have to spend time waiting for treatment, the hope is that we can significantly minimize wait times in the ER, leading to higher satisfaction and better outcomes for those who trust a hospital with their medical care.