Waiting Times in California's Emergency Departments

Published in: Annals of Emergency Medicine, v. 41, no. 1, Jan. 2003, p. 35-44

Posted on RAND.org on January 01, 2003

by Susan Lambe, Donna L. Washington, Arlene Fink, Marianne Laouri, Honghu H. Liu, Jessica Scura Fosse, Robert H. Brook, Steven M. Asch

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STUDY OBJECTIVE: Many perceive emergency department crowding as a significant problem that is getting worse. A national survey of ED directors defined crowding, in part, as waiting more than 1 hour to see a physician, a wait considered likely to result in adverse outcomes. Yet few data are available on ED waiting times among a heterogeneous group of hospitals serving a distinct geographic region. METHODS: The authors observed a random sample of 1,798 patients visiting 30 California EDs between December 15, 2000, and May 15, 2001. The authors defined waiting time as the interval from ED arrival to first contact with a physician or midlevel provider. RESULTS: Patients waited an average of 56 minutes (95% confidence interval [CI] 52 to 61 minutes; median 38 minutes); 42% waited longer than 60 minutes. Ordinary least squares regression analysis revealed that waiting times were significantly longer at hospitals in poorer neighborhoods: For every $10,000 decline in per capita income, patients waited 10.1 minutes longer (95% CI 1.8 to 18.4 minutes; P=.02) after adjusting for hospital ownership, teaching status, trauma status, proximity to a recently closed ED, ED volume, patient severity, and age. Lower ratios of physicians and triage nurses to waiting room patient were also associated with longer waits. CONCLUSION: Waiting times often exceeded the threshold set by a survey of ED directors. Further study is required to examine factors that lead to longer waiting times at hospitals in low-income areas. Physician and nurse staffing should be investigated as a means of reducing waiting times.

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