Waits Grow in Emergency Rooms

From the Wall Street Journal / WSJ Health Blog:

nullIf you felt like the wait to see a doctor was interminable the last time you were in the emergency room, you were right.

ER times dragged out 36% longer between 1997 and 2004, according to a Health Affairs study by a gaggle of Harvard docs out today. Researchers say there’s every reason to think the trend has worsened, thanks to the closing of some ERs and increased volume at the rest, the WSJ reports.

The headline numbers in the report are bad enough: The median wait for an adult visiting the ER to see a doctor was 30 minutes in 2004, up from 22 minutes in 1997. For heart attacks, the median wait was 20 minutes — up 150% from eight minutes in 1997.

But median figures only tell part of the story. Three-quarters of heart-attack patients were seen by a doctor within 20 minutes in 1997. That figure rose to 50 minutes in 2004—meaning a quarter of such patients didn’t see a doctor for nearly an hour. That’s particularly bad news because of the mounting evidence that shows early intervention can make all the difference in heart attack survival.

“Not only are they waiting longer and suffering while they wait, but potentially there could be long-term consequences to those waits as well,” says Andrew Wilper, lead author on the study and, like his coauthors, a doc at Cambridge Health Alliance.