Business of Health Care: Emergency Department Wait Times

May 17, 2019

Hospital emergency departments can go from near ghost towns to overcrowded in no time at all, which can create a recipe for long waits for some patients.




So what’s going on behind the scenes? Why are there sometimes long waits for care in an Emergency Department, even if the waiting room doesn’t look packed?

To start with, it’s important to know that hospital emergency departments don’t operate on a first-come, first-serve basis like most businesses.

Patients with the most serious and potentially life-threatening conditions get treated first. Patients arriving by ambulance also often taken priority.

Not only do serious cases jump to the front of the line, potentially causing delays, they often require more attention and resources.

Rather than rotating between patients as with less serious cases, doctors and other care providers may need to stay with a critical patient, providing constant care and monitoring.

This can create a domino effect, further prolonging waits.

Also, while the waiting room may not look completely full, it may be because some Emergency Departments have patients wait in the treatment area until it is their turn to be seen, and only use the waiting room if no more space is available in the treatment area.

For those with less serious conditions - such as sprained ankles, low-grade fever, and cold symptoms - the best way to avoid a wait in the emergency department is by considering another care setting such as a doctor’s office or local walk-in clinic for care that is likely just as effective and quicker.