Sep 15, 2023 - News

Duration of ER visits in California continues to increase

Data: Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services; Chart: Jacque Schrag and Alice Feng/Axios

The median time Californians spent in emergency rooms was three hours last year — the latest in a steady increase from pre-pandemic times, according to the latest Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services data.

Why it matters: Time spent in the ER is a key metric for tracking hospital performance. Increasing ER visit times is an indication that a hospital may be understaffed relative to a community's need or is facing other issues.

Zoom in: California's overall time increased slightly from 2 hours, 49 minutes in 2021 and 2 hours, 43 minutes in 2014.

  • It's also 20 minutes longer than the median of 2 hours, 40 minutes spent in emergency rooms nationwide in 2022 — a number that's been steadily rising in recent years.
  • Of note: This data, which covers over 4,000 Medicare-certified hospitals nationwide, captures the length of patients' entire ER visits, not just the time spent waiting to be first seen.

Context: In the last decade, emergency departments in California have failed to keep pace with an increase in need.

  • Between 2011 and 2021, the number of emergency departments decreased by nearly 4% while visits rose by 7.4%, according to a June study by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco.
  • The number of serious injury illness visits also jumped by nearly 68% in that period.
  • The findings reflect "what many health care workers already know to be true: the burden on emergency departments across the state of California has intensified," lead author Renee Y. Hsia, a UCSF professor of emergency medicine, said in a news release.

State of play: Many patients have had to wait days for care while ER doctors scramble to find specialists and open beds.

  • UCSF, for example, turned down 41% of the transfer requests it received in the past year, KQED reported in June.
  • Patients are now taking to platforms like the San Francisco-based Dignity Health to book ER appointments online and minimize long waits in a crowded environment.
  • Fears of getting stuck at the ER for hours on end have also led to a boom in urgent care and retail health clinics.

The big picture: The steady nationwide increase in the length of ER visits comes as hospitals face widespread staffing shortages.


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