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Emergency Room Waits Getting Longer Worldwide

August 08, 2008 02:50 PM
by Emily Coakley
People are spending more time waiting for care in U.S. emergency rooms, but the problem isn’t unique to this country.

U.S. ER waits long, but shorter than most

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Waiting for treatment in an emergency room seems to be a problem affecting people around the world, but the length of time they spend varies widely from country to country.

A recent study in the United States says the median emergency room wait time has increased to an hour, the San Francisco Chronicle reports. Several factors are thought to contribute to the longer wait, including fewer options outside the emergency room.

“The likely cause is there are just fewer and fewer primary care physicians,” said Stephen Pitts, a CDC fellow and author of the report. “If you were to get the flu and your doctor says, ‘Sure, I’ll see you in two weeks,’ you may not be able to wait. It’s hard for even insured people to get quick appointments and be seen quickly.”
Many view the hour as an inconvenience, but it’s not nearly as long as people in some other countries have to wait.

In one part of Canada, people have to wait an average of nearly 21 hours for care in an emergency department.

The National Health Service in the United Kingdom instituted a four-hour guarantee a few years ago. Earlier this year, some hospitals were accused of “patient stacking,” or keeping ambulances filled with sick people in holding patterns outside the emergency department (called Accident and Emergency in the U.K.) until the hospital could meet the four-hour promise.

“Ambulances should not be used as mobile waiting rooms. They should be freed up to do their job,” said Sam Oestreicher of the union Unison in a Guardian story.

Government officials disputed the statistics the Guardian published, and said the times included cleaning and restocking an ambulance after a patient had been delivered.

Background: 2005 Study on Worldwide ER Waits

People in U.S. emergency rooms reported being treated relatively quickly compared to other countries, according to a 2005 Commonwealth Fund report. According to the report, 12 percent of Americans surveyed had to wait four or more hours in an emergency department, compared to 24 percent of Canadians and 17 percent of Australians. Only four percent of Germans surveyed waited four or more hours in an emergency room.
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