Wait Times: How Does Your ED stack up?


Many patients might look at the emergency department (ED) like they would their neighborhood deli — first come, first serve. Luckily, for critically ill patients, this isn’t the case. The patients who need immediate treatment are going to receive it no matter how many patients are waiting.

Explaining this logic to a patient with a broken finger or a parent with a child experiencing cold symptoms may not be easy. The ED is the last place they want to be, and to them, their pain, or child’s pain, is a priority. Patients sometimes aren’t the best judge of their symptoms, and finding a way to get care outside of the ED can prove difficult depending on the day of the week, time of day and where they live.

The stats seem to reflect that. For example, from 2009 to 2010 more than 25 percent of all ED visits by children were for cold symptoms. For adults 12 percent of visits were deemed non-urgent, for cold symptoms and the like.

But it’s not just more non-urgent patients seeking care that are adding to wait times. With increasing numbers of patients visiting the ED for nonurgent conditions, wait times are bound to spike.

Year after year, average emergency department wait times have increased across the nation because visits are too. More people are seeking treatment at EDs — for urgent and nonurgent conditions — while the number of EDs is decreasing. According to the CDC the number of patient visits to EDs increased 32 percent over a 10-year period from 1999 to 2009. And at the same time many EDs closed their doors due to financial constraints.

So how does your ED’s average wait time compare?

One Measure: Broken Bones

The wait time for treatment of a broken bone is an important measure when it comes to hospital wait times. Of course, there’s different types of breaks and the severity of each will vary, but on average in 2014, a patient had to wait 54 minutes before receiving pain medications upon arrival in the ED.

For a national average, 54 minutes is long and depending on where a patient lives and which hospital they choose for treatment, the wait could have been much longer.

Take Washington, D.C. for example. Emergency departments in urban areas typically have longer wait times. In D.C., patients suffering from a broken bone had to wait an average of 69 minutes before receiving pain meds. This is only 15 minutes more than the national average, but with eight hospitals in the area the wait times varied drastically. If a patient sought treatment for a broken bone in D.C., they may have waited as little as 50 minutes for pain meds, or as long as 150 minutes depending on which ED they chose.

Difference in Wait Times Correlated to Patient Demographics

So who is facing longer wait times besides the no-critical patient? It seems adults go last and the old and the young are put first. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Older patients, age 65 and older had the lowest mean ED wait time from 2008-2010 at 48 minutes. Children’s was 51 minutes And, adults 18 to 64 tended to have to wait the longest at 58 minutes.

Researchers found a difference when it comes to gender. Females experienced longer waits than males — four minutes more than men (57 minutes and 53 minutes, respectively).

There were even interesting stats around race. Non-Hispanic black patients experienced the longest wait times (68 minutes), while Hispanic patients waited 60 minutes, and non-Hispanic white patients waited 50 minutes.

What Will the Future Hold When it Comes to Wait Times?

On average they’ll increase, but there’s no reason your ED can’t be an outlier. First, you need to know where you stack up, which you can do by checking outProPublica’s ER Wait Watcher.

If you find that your patients are waiting longer than those at a nearby hospital, Donovan and Partners can assess your ED and uncover the reasons why. We’ll examine your triage process, staffing and patient flow, and then help you implement the best solutions to cut wait times. Contact us today at cmd@constancedonovan.com or 651-260-9918.


ProPublica: “ER Wait Watcher, Which Emergency Room Will See You Fastest?”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Wait Time for Treatment in Hospital Emergency Departments: 2009.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Health, United States, 2012, With Special Feature on Emergency Care.”

American College of Emergency Physicians: “Emergency Department Wait Times, Crowding and Access Fact Sheet.”