Growing up, I was absolutely terrified of going to the hospital. The cold, nondescript corridors, the intimidating medical equipment, and the palpable tension between life and death frightened me. Although this anxiety has now been muted, the hospital still seems like a cold, unwelcome environment, and this feeling is only exacerbated by the outrageous wait times patients suffer in the emergency room waiting room.
The typical ER waiting room is quite the circus. Babies cry, adults writhe in agony, children snack, spouses worry, and teenagers complain, while others visibly grimace and bear the pain. Although standard patient behavior differs slightly from person to person, the common thread that connects all patients is the thought, When will I see the doctor? Individuals are bound to rediscover their spiritual side as they pray for patience; according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average hospital wait time is over three hours.
Hospital visits can be a harrowing experience because, while you suffer excruciating pain and discomfort, you are forced to wait every step of the way. From registration to getting called in to conducting tests to awaiting treatment, the average hospital visit can consume major portions of your day.
But what really causes ER visits to be so time-consuming? This is a question I have always wrestled with, and it does not have one clear answer. To be clear, hospitals are under a lot of stress these days because of persistent patient overcrowding. There are only a limited number of beds, and these limits on space constrain hospital staff. This means that although a hospital may be medically equipped to take care of patients, until it has the necessary space to place patients it cannot do so: this is often why we see hospitals cram beds and medical apparatus in the halls as an attempt to fit more patients in.
The patient priority ranking method also plays a role in ER wait times. Unlike the queue at Starbucks, getting treated at the hospital does not occur in a first-come-first-serve fashion. The patients who are seen first have the most serious ailments: critical trauma injuries, open-bone fractures, strokes, etc. Due to this prioritization method, a patient who suffers from an exacerbated cold or a minor cut requiring stitches can be forced to wait for several hours as more life-threatening cases are seen first.
Another factor that can majorly impact the length of your hospital stay is the number of tests you require and how complicated these assessments are. X-rays, CT scans, and the rest of the medical test battery require a decent length of time to be conducted. These assessments need physician recommendation, technician cooperation, nurse guidance, and equipment efficiency. Afterwards, physicians then must analyze test results and draw conclusions. This drawn-out, multistep process means that your hospital stay time is dependent on a network of people. If just one person falls behind or is having an off day it could add hours to your visit.
In addition to this, hospital wait times are also prolonged due to specialist shortages. Though the staff is equipped to deal with a wide range of maladies, routine ER staffs do not include neurologists or orthopedic surgeons; such specialists instead visit the ER strictly on an on-call backup service basis.
Although these problems all pose significant limits on a hospital’s resources, the one fact that truly stands out to me is how each complication is related to the hospital’s inefficiency as a system. The health care management organization that powers each hospital’s operational and administrative side is riddled with small flaws across the board, and, unfortunately, the collective weight of all these flaws drags down hospital efficiency.
I think there is a strong need to invest in hospital system improvement research. Although health care does have more variables and is more complicated than other institutions, at the end of the day, it is a system with patient influx and outflux and limited resources. Better resource management, the coordination of timely patient discharge, and the enhancement of perks to specialists are examples of solutions we need to establish in order to improve this system. I have no doubt that this task is extremely daunting. Managing physicians, patients, technology, resources, and the mystery of the human body is a monumental task. But unless we begin chipping at way at the possibilities and innovating for solutions, we will be stuck with our broken system. It’s time for a change.
Nikita Deshpande is a sophomore in the College. Navigating Healthcare appears every other Monday on thehoya.com