LiveSmart: The Why Behind Wait Times at the Emergency Department

[By The SPHP Emergency Services Team]

You are sick or injured and head to your local emergency department (ED), only to find a room full of other patients already waiting. You check in and take your seat as more patients arrive. Sometimes you sit for hours. Then, someone who came in after you gets called first while you continue to wait. But why?

Patients will be triaged by an experienced ED nurse. Triaging is attaching a level of urgency to each patient’s condition so the sickest patients are seen first. Patients with an emergency medical condition will be prioritized to be seen over patients with non-emergency symptoms.

Evaluation and Treatment
Patients may need X-rays, CT scans, blood draws, and other tests before doctors and nurses can make a diagnosis and start treatment. It can take several hours to access these machines and labs during times of high patient volumes, and still more time to review the results. If the condition requires a specialist, it takes time to call them in.

Available Hospital and ED Beds
If the hospital and ED beds are full, patients will wait longer because the system is at or over capacity. The ED can only take in the number of patients they can safely treat. When the waiting room is full, it is a sign that the health system is busy. Sometimes hospitals send patients to other local hospitals if all beds are full or if trauma cases are coming in.

Staffing Issues
The Capital Region’s EDs continue to face unprecedented demand for services, especially this time of year with the trifecta of flu, COVID-19, and RSV. Coupled with staffing shortages, it’s a daily challenge.

We Need Your Help!

  • Please have patience with the ED staff as they work tirelessly to provide the best care possible.
  • If you have a life- or limb-threatening illness or injury, call 9-1-1 or get to the ED immediately. These include issues like head injuries, severe abdominal pain, chest pain, breathing problems, etc. At St. Peter’s, Samaritan, and Albany Memorial hospitals, our ED clinicians and nurses are highly skilled and dedicated to giving you the care you or your loved ones need in an emergency.
  • If your symptoms are uncomfortable, but can wait, or are routine (e.g., sore throat, stitches, colds, etc.), consider an urgent care facility or call your primary care doctor to make an appointment or talk to the after-hours doctor on call. This leaves ED beds open for true emergencies.

We have put together examples of conditions and where you can get the most appropriate care. Please visit “Think Before You Go – ER or Urgent Care” at Be well!

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