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50+: Live Better, Longer

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Study: ER Patients Wait Too Long for Care

Many Hospitals Aren't Meeting Their Own Goals for Limiting Wait Times in Emergency Rooms
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Oct. 2, 2009 -- Even the sickest patients treated in hospital emergency departments across the U.S. routinely wait longer than they should for medical care, new research suggests.

Just 14% of hospitals met their own target time frame for treating very sick patients at least 90% of the time.

And slightly less than one in three hospitals met target treatment time goals 90% or more of the time for all patients treated in emergency departments.

"In hospitals across the country patients are waiting longer than they should for treatment in ERs," study researcher Leora I. Horwitz, MD, MPH, tells WebMD. "There is also tremendous variation from hospital to hospital, which has more to do with how the facilities choose to practice than the characteristics of the patients they treat."

Triage Targets Not Met

The vast majority of hospital emergency departments across the country now have triage nurses or doctors who assess patients as soon as they arrive and determine target treatment times based on how sick the patients are.

In an effort to examine whether individual hospitals were meeting these triage goals, Horwitz and colleagues from Connecticut's Yale-New Haven Hospital examined data provided annually to the CDC by medical centers across the country.

Their random sample included information on 35,849 patient visits to 364 emergency departments in 2006.

The analysis revealed that:

  • When patients were found to be in need of hospitalization, less than half (47.7%) of emergency departments admitted 90% or more within six hours of first being seen.
  • Less than a quarter (24.5%) admitted hospitalized patients within four hours.
  • One in three patients triaged for treatment within an hour waited longer to see a treating physician.
  • The average wait time at the slowest 25% of emergency departments was twice as long as average wait times at the 25% of the fastest hospitals.

The study was published online today in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

Misuse of Emergency Departments

While there is little disagreement that ER wait times are too long, emergency physician Sandra Schneider, MD, says there is a lot of confusion among the public about the reason for this.

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