The Waiting Game

By: Rachel Pittenger  

“We are experiencing above average wait times.  Right now the estimated wait time is 5 ½ hours.”

After having waited for 2 ½ already, I hoped that I could rustle up an estimate of how much longer I would be sitting in that waiting room.  No such luck.  In fact, a 2009 Pulse Report from Press Ganey Associates registered an average ER wait time at 6 hours during that year. Given the number of patients who continue to lack health insurance (though a recent census reports that this number has gone down), the wait is far from over.  The hospital waiting room is a microcosm of the endemic poverty, poor health, and organizational weaknesses in American society.

So, after a final pleading look at the receptionist’s unsmiling face, I retreat to wait among the rest.  The middle-aged patient covering his hacking cough with a mask sits beside the young mom with her crying child.  Cut to a mother at the front desk, screaming for help as her teenage son writhes in pain after a serious sports injury.  The receptionists remain as unfazed by this crisis as they do when two sorority girls in bunny ears and tutus check in soon after.  Imagine my frustration when those bunnies stumble back to be seen after waiting only an hour.

The national conversation surrounding hospital waiting rooms is an important extension of the ongoing healthcare crisis.  The waiting room community is often populated by people who are uninsured and have no means to pay their bills (medical or otherwise).  Yet, they wait because this overcrowded emergency room remains their only option.  Contributing to this discourse is the 2012 documentary The Waiting Room, which sheds light on the chaos of a safety net hospital in Oakland, California. The film calls attention to central issues of health access:  the emergency room gets flooded largely as a result of the uninsured having nowhere else to go.  Lacking resources for preventative care, the emergency room becomes the only route, and as hundreds of people compete for limited hospital beds, the interminable waiting commences.

Hospitals have implemented a number of strategies to attempt to remedy this inevitable wait time.  Aurora Sinai Medical Center in Milwaukee seeks to weed out potentially non-emergent patients by have a stronger triaging system up front:  rather than a nurse, a doctor can judge whether a patient should be seen “right away” or referred to make an appointment. A hospital in Waco, Texas has created an online tool to allow patients to sign up for ER appointments ahead of time, a benefit increasingly enjoyed by those with less life-threatening conditions.

Despite these limited cases, what is clear is that the interminable ER wait is emblematic of the effects of a broken health care system, and far too many people who have no insurance or knowledge of how to use it.   Comprehensive health care reform should free up the waiting room by allowing more people access to preventative care.   Yet to see substantial effects of this at safety net hospitals like that in Oakland, we will likely have to wait.

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