How to Effectively Reduce ER Wait Times

The average emergency room wait hovers around 40 minutes. Here are some things your ED can do to reduce these ER wait times.

The average emergency room wait time in the United States is around 40 minutes, according to a 2017 survey published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And that’s just to be initially seen, not treated.

Reducing wait times not only allows you to assist patients with their medical needs quickly, but it also allows your emergency department staff to process more patients. 

As we go through the unprecedented effects of COVID, which has caused ER wait times to temporarily go down, this article will help you to come out better prepared on the other side once the world regains a sense of normalcy and wait times start to increase again.

We’ll discuss the reasons your emergency department may be processing patients at a slower rate. Then we’ll show you the best ways you can effectively reduce your ER wait times to not only become a more efficient emergency department but to better the reputation of your facility as a whole.

What Makes Emergency Room Wait Times Longer Than They Should Be?

Waiting is inevitable – not just at the ER. Many assume the reason for a high wait time at the ER is insufficient staffing that affects customer/patient ratios, which is usually brought on by a lack of funds.

Insurance companies and patients pay for each and every service they receive, as well as a fee for just visiting, so lack of funds that limit staffing or technology is not always the reason behind the wait times in an emergency room (assuming you’re properly collecting on these bills). So what else is?

As we know from being on the frontline, the processes in an emergency department are complex. Patients start with the triage nurses who provide an initial assessment of their symptoms and issues. The process continues with testing of basic vitals and then additional testing depending on the symptoms that brought them there.

Then the patients tend to wait because other patients need to have initial evaluations as well. The patients eventually see the doctor, and the transition between each interval is what causes such a delay. If a patient needs a bed, they must wait for one to be available, trickling down the chain and affecting those waiting for their initial screening.

Of the inpatients in the hospital on a given day, studies show that 70 percent start in the emergency room, concluding that the ER tends to be the hospital’s gatekeeper. So when a bed is not available, the ER wait times are greatly influenced.

But not having enough beds isn’t always the case. According to the same study, only 20% of emergency room visits end up admitted. So what else is causing the extended wait times?

The variability of the emergency room is the biggest culprit. While an ED can do its best to estimate the number of nurses and physicians needed to staff the department at any given time, it’s impossible to know for sure. 30% of ER visits in the United States are considered non-emergencies, which can also contribute to a higher number of patients that must go through the entire process, while they may not need much of it.

Unlike most businesses, in a hospital’s emergency room, we don’t have the luxury of defining the times in which our “customers” may show up. They come when they need to, and they arrive with a plethora of different needs, each one different from the next.

So how do we manage this?

How to Reduce ER Wait Times

It would be easy to conclude that we simply need more physicians, more beds, and faster technology to process and diagnose patients to get them on their way faster. But this can be very costly, as there is potential that these extra resources would be standing by idle much of the time, as they’ll only be needed if there is an influx of patients.

There are a few different ways we can alleviate some of this wait time in our EDs.

Study Your Data

The first step in decreasing the wait time is knowing where the waits are happening. Analyzing your intervals is a great method for determining where the process is slowing. Are patients waiting an excessive amount of time just to get to the triage nurse? Is the bulk of their delay occurring after their initial testing is complete, and they are waiting to see a doctor? 

Analyzing your other patient data is also crucial. Knowing the top reasons people visit your ER by analyzing historical coding data can help your ED to be more efficient. It’s critical to know how to leverage this data to be utilized in your favor.

Related: How to Use ER Visitation Data to Help Improve Your Group’s Efficiency

Once you understand exactly what types of cases your ER is seeing and where your gaps are can help you determine the best way to improve. And don’t just study them one time – continue to revisit them to ensure you’re doing everything you can to limit unnecessary waiting.

Engage The Whole Team

Rather than analyze processes behind the scenes, bring your entire staff on board to work on improving the wait times. 

Your nurses and physicians are the ideal people to help generate ideas based on what they see on the frontline. They’re working diligently every day, and they may be able to help propose new procedures that can increase efficiency.

Reduce Unnecessary ER Visits

The number of ED visits increased from 128.97 million to 144.82 million between 2010 and 2016 alone. More and more patients seek instant treatment and don’t prefer to wait for an appointment with their primary care – or for any required test results to come back. 

Educate patients so they understand when it’s vital to visit the ER – a broken bone, chest pain, an injury requiring stitches. Increase patient awareness about when they should choose the ER over a doctor’s appointment. 

Offering telemedicine is a great option as well. Allowing your ED to provide treatment advice virtually will free up space for more serious needs, reduce unnecessary visits, and therefore decrease your wait times.

Related: How Can EDs Reduce Visits for Non-Urgent Conditions?

Fast-Track Triage with RNs

When there is an inrush of ER patients, studies have found it beneficial to give patients access to a registered nurse in the waiting room. The RN can evaluate the needs of the patient and determine which symptoms do not warrant the need for a physician with an expert level of skill.

In a study of Hurricane Maria’s catastrophe in Puerto Rico and its effect on ER wait times, the research found that an approach where the ED employed RNs to provide an initial evaluation of patients resulted in quicker treatment and discharge.

While these are a few tips you can implement to improve your ER wait times, having the funds to employ enough staff is also crucial. Without the nurses and physicians needed to move patients through your ED’s patient process, any other efforts may not be as beneficial as they could be.

DuvaSawko is an EM Billing & Management Solution that can optimize your revenue cycles and ensure you’re collecting on your patients’ bills promptly. With an expert analysis of your practice’s performance, DuvaSawko can help reduce ED profits that may slip through the cracks, in turn increasing the available funds needed to staff your ED appropriately and reduce ER wait times. 

Don’t miss out on revenue. Contact us today. 

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