ER wait times are rising in Oregon
The median amount of time Oregonians spent in emergency rooms was nearly three hours last year, according to the latest Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) data — reflecting a steady rise that started before the pandemic.
Why it matters: Time spent in the ER is a key metric for tracking hospital performance.
- Increasing ER visit times indicate that a hospital may be understaffed relative to a community's needs — including mental health needs — or is facing other issues, according to the federal agency that tracks the numbers.
Zoom in: In Oregon, the median emergency room visit lasted 2 hours, 51 minutes between Oct. 1, 2021, and Sept. 30, 2022 — up slightly from 2 hours, 42 minutes in the previous 12 months (which spanned a full pandemic year).
- Time in emergency rooms statewide has risen since 2018, when the median was about a half-hour shorter.
- Generally, smaller hospitals tend to have shorter wait times, a spokesperson for Providence, which has eight hospitals in Oregon, told Axios.
- Staff shortages throughout the health care system mean there often aren't available beds at care facilities like nursing homes, so hospital patients ready for lower-level care can't be promptly discharged, says Lisa Goodman, vice president of communications at the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems.
- Goodman told Axios via email that those patients can spend several days "boarding" in the emergency room, which "can impact newly arrived patients' wait time for care."
Zoom out: While the national median time has also been rising, Oregon ER visits have been longer than that since at least 2014.
Yes, but: Multnomah County health officials warn that average or median wait times can be misleading because patients with urgent conditions such as cardiac arrest will be seen immediately, but patients in stable condition with minor complaints may wait much longer.
Details: This data captures the length of patients' entire ER visits, not just the time spent waiting to be first seen.
- It covers more than 4,000 Medicare-certified hospitals nationwide.
Separately, at least one Oregon facility — Willamette Valley Medical Center in McMinnville — publishes in real time how long it takes to see a medical professional in the ER, to "help establish expectations," the hospital says.
- Oregon Health & Science University used to do the same, but found it "untenable" to keep up, according to OHSU spokesperson Erik Robinson.
- "Waiting times can fluctuate significantly from hour to hour based on demand, as well as the relative urgency of each case," Robinson told Axios.
The intrigue: Fears of getting stuck at the ER for hours are fueling a boom in urgent care and retail health clinics.
The big picture: Emergency rooms are also struggling with unique challenges, including a lack of resources to handle a surging youth mental health crisis.
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