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When I think of the emergency room, I think of the crowded waiting area, chock full of people who have been waiting a long time to see a doctor.  The Center for Disease Control confirms that image. Studies have shown that the average wait to receive care is around one hour. A 2006 report by Press Ganey Associates found that the average stay in an American emergency room clocks in at around 3.7 hours. Patients filled out satisfaction surveys, and Arizona clocked in with the highest average wait time at 297.3 minutes—close to five hours!  Iowa led the way with a wait time of 138.3 minutes, a little over two hours worth of time spent in the hard plastic waiting room chairs.

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Healthcare providers working to reduce Emergency Room waits

Some feel that the health care reforms will put the squeeze on emergency rooms. After Massachusetts implemented universal health care, emergency rooms reported a boost in people. Even though the health insurance would theoretically give them more access to preventative care, the primary care physician shortage may actually make it more difficult to seek preventative services, consequently making ER care ever more critical.

It’s no surprise that hospitals throughout the United States are working to increase patient satisfaction by decreasing hospital wait time. According to the Baltimore Sun, in 2006, 120 million patients went to an emergency room, a sizeable increase from ten years earlier. More and more people are using the ER to receive care. By using innovative, inexpensive new technology, emergency rooms are cutting down unnecessary services.  Hospitals in some states use texts and emails to communicate with patients, marketing their services.

A recent article in the Baltimore Sun details the efforts of area emergency rooms.  At St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, the hospital advertises its emergency room wait time online. This initiative has raised patient satisfaction, increasing the likelihood that patients will choose St. Joseph’s. St. Joseph’s cuts out unnecessary, bulky procedures to streamline care.  At the University of Maryland Medical Center, staff moves patients in need of urgent care to beds instead of housing them in the ER.  Many other Maryland hospitals have added staff to deal with emergencies.

In Arizona, the state that the third longest wait time in 2009, hospitals are also marketing their wares. Gilbert Hospital in Phoenix ran an ad touting its ER services, highlighting the fact that most patients saw a doctor in 31 minutes or less. Other area hospitals used billboards and other media to promote speedy service. By marketing their superior service, hospitals can increase their business, unless their actions don’t back up their words.

All in all, the fact that emergency rooms are working to become more efficient is promising.  Ultimately, however, I feel that increased ER waiting times are a symptom of the primary care physician shortage. On top of all the slimming and trimming of ER procedures, emphasizing preventative care is crucial to reducing ER wait times.  Building a strong supply of primary care physicians can increase access to preventative care as more and more people are insured.

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