The obviousness of long waiting times in the emergency department

The obviousness of long waiting times in the emergency department

Emergency, as per the all-knowing Webster, is defined as an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action. Furthermore, an emergency is also defined as an urgent need for assistance or relief.

These definitions sound pretty spot-on, right? When thinking about emergency room settings, even, one can easily correlate the words of Webster to what one would necessitate to be a situation requiring emergency medical treatment. A trauma. Broken bones. A heart attack. A stroke. A seizure. Respiratory distress. A cardiac arrest. The list goes on and on and on. When a critical illness or injury occurs, then, we should all be thankful that we live within a society where emergent, life-saving medical care is available.

Lately, though, it seems the system meant to provide this care is being bogged down by questionable decision-making. Instead of providing emergent care, it seems I spend at least half of my emergency room time now playing doctor to chronic illnesses. To pain control issues. To mildly elevated blood pressure readings. To months of nonspecific weaknesses and fatigue. To office appointments sent to the ER because “we are overbooked today.” And our ER is not alone. I hear the frustration of my colleagues and see first-hand how overworked most of us who provide health care in the ER setting have become.

A month back, I was in the middle of a very busy shift. Several patients with chest pain (one requiring immediate catheterization), two patients with respiratory distress (one from skipping dialysis and one from a COPD exacerbation), and three patients from a motor vehicle collision presented almost simultaneously to our ER. Within minutes, all of these critical patients had been treated with efficient, appropriate life-saving care. The team on deserved kudos for doing their job well and making a difference in these patients’ outcomes.

Walking back to the nursing station, then, I was surprised to find our secretary being berated by a gentleman in his thirties at the counter. His voice was loud and menacing. His face was pinched with anger. His fists were clenched by his side.

“Whoa,” I said, walking up to him, standing between him and the secretary, “what seems to be the problem, sir?”

“We’ve been waiting two hours to be seen by a doctor!” he exclaimed. “What the hell is going on around here?”

Are you kidding? All he had to do was look for himself to find the organized commotion that was occurring in our ER setting. What followed was the briefest of conversations.

“Sir,” I asked, “what brought you to our ER today?”
“My daughter’s left ear is hurting her.”
“For how long?” I asked.
“Two hours,” he replied.

Two hours of ear pain? I get it–maybe he was worried about his daughter. I would be as well. But my daughter would also have gotten Tylenol and Advil and watched her daddy patiently wait for their turn to be treated once the dire situation had been explained. Better yet, we would have probably waited until the morning when a call could be placed to her personal physician.

I explained to him that we had multiple critical patients brought to us and we would be with his daughter as soon as possible. “We’re all trying our best, sir,” I added, “but you’re going to need to be a little more patient.”

The father stared me in the eye. I stared back. Finally, he blurted out what he had been thinking to say. “Well, then,” he spoke, sarcasm dripping from his pathetic words, “try harder.” It didn’t end there, though. He continued. “This is bullshit waiting two hours to be seen.”

Before I could respond, he turned his back and huffed himself back into Room 27 where, the nurse shared with me, his eleven year-old daughter comfortably sat watching TV. “And,” the nurse added, “I had already explained to him why they were waiting to be seen.”

After this, one of our regulars who had been to our ER over 200 times (since we started tracking in March of 2006) arrived via ambulance. Then a gentleman carrying a big bottle of Mountain Dew was escorted from his ambulance, by foot, into our ER because his main complaint was “I just want to take a nap and was too far from my apartment.” Next, an asymptomatic patient with elevated blood pressure for three years, non-compliant with her medications for financial reasons (yes–I noticed the pack of cigarettes hanging from her purse), was sent to us from her family doctor to be cured on the spot. “Go right to the ER,” she was told.

Can you appreciate the obviousness of the long waiting times in the emergency department? Although we all pride ourselves on providing expedient care, a four to six hour wait is sometimes the reality for some of our noncritical patients.

As if to hammer the point home, my last patient during my shift that night (I was working 5pm to 3am) was a sixteen year old female who had presented to our ER, via ambulance at 2am, with her mother.

I walked into her room to find this patient and her mother both lying in the cot, laughing while watching TV, the patient in no obvious distress. I introduced myself to them before I started asking questions. “What can I do to help you tonight? What brought you to our emergency room?”

The girl looked at her mother and started giggling, my first sign that she would survive whatever her ailment may be.

“Well,” she said shyly, “I’ve had some burning when I pee for about a week. And,” she added, not done “I have something gross leaking from down there (she swept her hand towards her pelvis as she spoke).” Upon further questioning, I learned that she had been diagnosed with a yeast infection from her family doctor one month ago but failed to get her prescription filled. I also learned that she was sexually active with not one, but two partners. Unprotected.

I was disheartened. “What made you come to the ER at 2am when these symptoms have been going on for over a week?” I asked, hoping there was some rhyme or reason to her seeking out emergent care at this time. There wasn’t. Her answer to my question–”Why not?” I didn’t even approach her on why she came in by ambulance. Some things are better not known, I guess, especially at 2am.

I’m not sure this is the system that was imagined when emergency departments started gaining favor in our society. Don’t get me wrong, though. I, like all of my colleagues, are 100% committed to providing respectful and appropriate care to anyone who shows up in our department, whether it be a critical, life-threatening illness or a chronic “nuisance,” so to speak.

I can only hope that people will be patient and understanding as we all cope with the evolving changes that seem to be occurring with our health care system. And my hat is off to all the medical folks who work hard, day after day, treating our fellow mankind as best we can within this currently accepted system. Because, even as bogged down as we can sometimes become, what an awesome privilege we have in meeting and greeting and treating our fellow kind. Of helping them out in their time of need.

“StorytellERdoc” is an emergency physician who blogs at his self-titled site, StorytellERdoc.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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