NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


January 15, 2008

Emergency room times dragged out 36 percent longer between 1997 and 2004, thanks to the closing of some ERs and increased volume at the rest, according to a Health Affairs study by Harvard University doctors.

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 percent 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.

Some fared better than others in the ER, including men, whites, and those living outside cities or the Northeast.  But white suburbanites shouldn't take much comfort in the fact that they have shorter wait times than others, says Robert A. Lowe, an ER doctor and head of the Center for Policy & Research in Emergency Medicine at Oregon Health & Science University.  For one thing, many trauma centers are in crowded urban hospitals.

"That's where you're going to go if your Volvo runs into his BMW," Lowe said. "We're all at risk when wait times increase."

Source: Theo Francis, "Waits Grow in Emergency Rooms," Wall Street Journal, January 15, 2008.

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