Sep 15, 2023 - Health

ER visits are getting longer amid hospital staffing shortages

Median time, in hours, patients spent in hospital emergency rooms
Data: Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services; Map: Alice Feng/Axios

Americans in need of urgent care are spending increasingly longer stretches of time in hospital emergency rooms, per recently released figures.

  • The median time patients spent in emergency rooms was 2 hours, 40 minutes nationwide based on a 12-month average ending in the third quarter of 2022, according to the latest Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) data.
  • That's up from 2 hours, 35 minutes in 2021 (a pandemic year), and 2 hours, 18 minutes in 2014, for example.

Why it matters: Time spent in the ER is a key metric for tracking hospital performance.

  • Increasing ER visit times are an indication that a hospital may be understaffed relative to a community's need or is facing other issues.
  • "Long stays in the emergency department before a patient leaves may be a sign that the emergency department is understaffed or overcrowded," per CMS. "This may result in delays in treatment, increased suffering for those who wait, and unpleasant treatment environments."

Be smart: This data captures the length of patients' entire ER visits, not just the time spent waiting to be first seen.

Zoom in: Washington, D.C. hospitals racked up the longest median times for ER stays in 2022, at 5 hours and 29 minutes.

  • Maryland (4 hours, 2 minutes), Rhode Island (3 hours, 34 minutes) and Massachusetts (3 hours, 33 minutes) followed.
  • North Dakota (1 hour, 48 minutes), South Dakota (1 hour, 55 minutes) and Nebraska (1 hour, 55 minutes) had the lowest median times in the ER.

The big picture: The steady increase comes as hospitals face a staffing crisis — a problem plaguing all sorts of vital industries, from health care to teachers to air traffic controllers.

  • Emergency rooms are also struggling with unique challenges, including a lack of resources to handle a surging youth mental health crisis.
  • Youth mental health-related ER visits approximately doubled between 2011 and 2020, per a May report in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
  • "Emergency rooms weren't designed to be mental health providers, but limited mental health support for children outside of hospitals has led to understaffed ERs being overwhelmed by young patients with behavioral emergencies," Axios' Sabrina Moreno recently reported.

The intrigue: Fears of getting stuck at the ER for hours on end is fueling a boom in urgent care and retail health clinics, as we've previously reported.

Of note: The CMS data covers more than 4,000 Medicare-certified hospitals nationwide.

Editor's note: Several states' median ER visit times in the above map have been corrected.

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