What Factors Affect Emergency Room Wait times?

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  • Written By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 13 September 2019
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Numerous factors affect emergency room wait times, but three of the most important are the number of critical patients, the availability of beds elsewhere in the hospital, and the number of doctors and nurses on call. Most emergency rooms work on a triage basis, which means that the most critical patients are usually seen ahead of those with more minor injuries. If there are a lot of critical injuries, the wait time can be very long for someone who does not have a life-threatening condition. Hospital dynamics like space and number of emergency room staff also play a role.

Visiting a hospital emergency room, or ER, is usually the quickest way to get medical treatment. This does not mean that no waiting is involved, however. Most of the time, patients who visit an ER have to wait at least a few minutes before they can be processed and see a doctor. Depending on what else is going on, patients may even have to wait for several hours. Emergency room wait times are largely a factor of circumstance, but certain elements almost always play a role.


If there are relatively few patients in the emergency room at a given time, the wait time can be quite short. Usually, however, emergency rooms and urgent care centers are very busy places. Critical patients almost always take precedence over those with minor injuries. This means that if a lot of people come into an emergency room with critical injuries, either by chance or because of some disaster or major accident, a person with a more minor ailment may have to wait for those people to be treated before he can see a doctor, even if he was there first. The number of critical injuries that come into the ER is a major factor affecting emergency room wait times for minor injuries.

Even critical injuries sometimes have to wait, depending on the dynamics of the ER. If things are really crowded and all of the doctors are busy, the emergency room wait is likely to be long for all patients, no matter what their injuries are. A shortage of on-call doctors and nurses has a similar effect.

Many critics of exceptionally long emergency room wait times point fingers at hospital funding cutbacks. When hospitals cut back on staff, the emergency room is one of the first places to feel the pinch. A lot of patients are first admitted to the hospital through the ER, and if they need longer-term care, they are moved from there to the appropriate ward.

If those long-term wards are understaffed, or if they have been downsized, patients often have no choice but to wait in the ER for a bed to become available. This is known in the medical field as “boarding.” Until boarded patients can be moved, they are taking up space that waiting patients could be using, adding hours to emergency room wait times in many instances.


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Post 1

I've heard there are now some hospitals that will allow you to register an incoming ER patient on a special website and they will actually hold that patient's place in line. I don't see how that can work at the ERs I've been in over the years. If the next name on the list is not right there in person, the nurse will usually go on to the next name. I suppose if someone registers their name on the site and then runs late, he or she won't be automatically sent to the end of the waiting list.

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