Why are wait times so long in emergency rooms?

Why the long wait times?

Two health policy experts from Boston University had the same question. And when they dived into the statistics, they realized that some patients are urged to go to the ER even though they don’t have a true emergency.

Paul Shafer, an assistant professor of health law, policy and management, and Alex Woodruff, a policy analyst, identify a variety of reasons ER waits are so long in an article published in The Conversation.

ERs face what they call a “herculean task”: treat all comers, reduce wait times and reduce costs, even in the face of financial stressors. But the sheer number of people who walk through the doors makes all the difference — and those numbers can be driven up by physicians who don’t have admitting privileges and those who refer people to the ER because of tight schedules or symptoms beyond their purview.

They cite a 2017 study in which researchers surveyed 1,100 patients who had been triaged at the UCLA emergency department. None of the patients had symptoms that had resulted in immediate care, and none were in severe pain or distress.

Fifty-two percent of the patients reported they had spoken with a medical provider or office within the past three days, and 59 percent said they’d have been willing to see a doctor in a clinic instead. However, a full 70 percent reported a medical provider told them to go to the emergency room.

“Every day, hospital emergency departments serve as the entry point into health care for Americans who don’t feel right and have nowhere else to go, or have an emergency, like a car accident,” they write. “This also includes millions of patients seeking routine medical care that is available elsewhere: While the estimates vary widely from study to study, upwards of a third of all emergency department visits could be considered ‘nonurgent.’ ”

Shafer and Woodruff acknowledge that there’s no such thing as the “right” wait time. In the article, they identify some potential solutions — and a raft of systemic challenges that could keep your wait time high the next time you get care. To read the piece, visit bit.ly/ERwait.

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