The Waiting Game: ER wait times investigation

ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – Six hours.

That’s how long an Albuquerque grandmother waited during a recent visit to the emergency room at a local hospital.

“I got a pain in my chest and it took me to the floor. I could not breathe,” the woman told KRQE News 13.

She was taken to a private hospital by ambulance and put on an IV. “They wheeled me out to the waiting room and I got up and sat in a chair.”

And then the woman waited. And then she waited some more, all the while feeling “rotten.”

I was feeling very bad. Very tired. I was having a little trouble breathing. And I just sit there,” she said.

And then she decided she’d had enough.

“I got up and told them I was going home, take the IVs out, and they talked me into staying some more,” the woman said. “So I stayed there probably another hour, and then I got up and told them to take the IVs out, I’m going home.”

What happened that day was not an isolated incident. In fact, it’s a daily occurrence. Hospital emergency rooms across New Mexico are so overcrowded that patients routinely wait hours to see a doctor. Sometimes the wait can be a half day or more.

New Mexico's Report Card (America’s Emergency Care Environment, A State-by-State Report Card)
New Mexico’s Report Card (America’s Emergency Care Environment, A State-by-State Report Card)

Dr. Tony Salazar is President of the New Mexico Chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians. He put the problem in context.

“The quality of health care is directly related to ER wait times,” Salazar told News 13. “We know that the longer a patient has to wait in the emergency department the increased liklihood of an adverse event for that patient.”

On average, about 240 patients come to the University of New Mexico Hospital ER every day. Dr. Steve McLaughlin chairs the school’s Department of Emergency Medicine.

“We know very directly that the longer patients wait the more likely they are to leave,” he said in an interview.

UNMH shared its internal tracking data of actual ER wait times with News 13. Those figures provided a first ever look at the state’s busiest emergency room, where about 12 percent of the patients who come to the ER each year leave before receiving medical treatment.

For example, 645 patients gave up before being seen by a doctor last August. And for a one-day look, consider April 4, 2013: 56 patients bailed out of the ER that day. And on May 9, 2013, 33 patients left the hospital’s ER without being seen — that’s fully 22 percent of those who came through the door that day.

News 13 asked McLaughlin how that’s possible.

“That’s a great question, and its complicated,” he replied. “I would say really it comes down to the fact that the number of folks that we need to take care of that are showing up and asking for our services is higher than our capacity to take care of those patients.”

It’s not just UNM. Every hospital ER in America wrestles with severe overcrowding.

But the tracking data from UNMH show that patients with injuries like broken bones and abdominal pain waited, on average, less than two hours. On the other side of the coin, some people in that category had to wait as long as 11 hours.

Patients with less severe symptoms — like back pain — waited on average about three hours. But some were in the ER an eye-popping 16 hours.

Inside the Story:

“I would say its absolutely not what we are striving for,” McLaughlin said. “But it’s reality. It’s the reality given the health care system we are in.”

The reality for private hospitals is equally challenging. For example, Albuquerque’s largest private hospital is Presbyterian.

Presbyterian’s ER sees about 2,000 fewer patients in an average month than UNMH — but that doesn’t necessarily mean shorter wait times.

“A lot of times it comes down to that we have to see the sickest patients first,” said Darren Shafer, medical director for Presbyterian’s ER. “When patients present to triage they are evaluated and its determined whether they are essentially able to safely wait or not … The challenge is we can sometimes have three heart attacks happening at the exact same time in our emergency department and we have to focus on those patients first.”

According to data supplied by Presbyterian, in November, patients with symptoms like chest pains and mental confusion spent, on average, less than two hours in the Presbyterian ER before seeing a doctor, according to data provided by the hospital. And patients with more serious conditions, such as gastrointestinal bleeding, waited about an hour.

But, in November, 88 patients sat for four hours at Presbyterian; 39 waited five hours; and 16 people waited six hours. One patient waited eight hours, and another sat for nine hours. Last year, 1,500 patients left Presbyterian’s emergency room without seeing a doctor.

Officials from the New Mexico Hospital Association — including President Jeff Dye and Chairman Beau Beames — refused News 13’s interview requests for this story.

“Thats really disappointing to hear that patients have come looking for care and they have given up on trying to be seen,” Shafer said. “Presbyterian is actually better than the national benchmark at around one percent in terms of left without being seen. But that being said we are still going to continue to improve. We’re still not going to say that’s acceptable until we don’t have anybody that ever leaves without being seen.

“I don’t think anyone should have to wait. I live in Albuquerque. I was born and raised here. My mother lives here. I don’t want her to come to the emergency department and have to wait. … Nothing is acceptable in terms of a wait time.”

Lovelace Medical Center in Albuquerque declined to share its ER wait time data with News 13. Christus St. Vincent Medical Center in Santa Fe did not respond to News 13’s request.

blog comments powered by Disqus