How an Improved Patient Flow Process Makes Your ED Safer

Patient waiting a doctor in hospital

An optimized patient flow process offers several benefits for the emergency department. For example, efficient patient flow allows EDs to manage increased patient volume and throughput. It also reduces the costs incurred by EDs as a result of extended lengths of stay and boarding. EDs with an established and sound patient flow process experience higher staff morale and increased levels of patient satisfaction. Most importantly, improving patient flow increases patient safety in the emergency department, which is critical for ED and hospital leaders focused on patient experience.

We can all agree that emergency department crowding is, by and large, the greatest threat to patient safety. I discussed this correlation in a recent blog post, but I wanted to take some time to talk more about how an optimized patient flow process counters overcrowding and will lead to improved safety in the emergency department.

For patients experiencing life-threatening conditions— such as strokes, heart attacks and trauma — time is of the essence. Staff also must be able to have the confidence that bottlenecks or barriers to care do not appear when treating patients with these conditions. Inefficiencies in the ED may place undue stress on nurses, physicians and support and result in increased workloads, all of which pose a threat to patient safety. But when an optimized patient flow process is in place, ED and hospital leaders can be assured their patients will receive complete, comprehensive care without a risk to staff morale and patient safety.  

ED leaders must also understand the effects of bottlenecks and barriers to care in the ED can put a strain on other areas of the hospital, such as inpatient units. Rapidly admitting patients to inpatient units does little good if no beds are available. Efficiency isn’t really about the speed in which an ED admits, discharges or transfers a patient. It’s about providing quality care that’s appropriate while effectively managing the expectations of patients and their families along with relevant staff stationed throughout the hospital. If the ED is the front door of the hospital, it’s also where the flow of patients begins and the foundation for a culture of patient safety.

Delivering quality care promptly within the ED isn’t the only factor that contributes to this culture of patient safety. Effective communication and teamwork is also critical to patient safety and patient flow. Miscommunication takes an immense toll on an ED’s tally of preventable medical errors. If you’re an ED or hospital leader who has made the wise decision to revamp an inefficient patient flow process, make sure your communication strategy is tailored to the new plan. Communication is especially important during the implementation of any new or updated plan, no matter the performance areas you’re focusing on. Open-door policies, standardized communication practices and deep analysis of existing and potential communication structures are all proven strategies to increase patient safety and improve patient flow.

Need help improving your ED’s patient flow? Schedule a complimentary phone consultation with Connie Donovan to discuss what’s happening in your ED.


Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality: “Improving Patient Flow and Reducing Emergency Department Crowding: A Guide for Hospitals”

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality: Patient Safety and Quality: An Evidence-Based Handbook for Nurses