WAFF Investigates: E.R. wait times - WSFA.com Montgomery Alabama news.

WAFF Investigates: E.R. wait times

How long is the average wait at emergency rooms in the Tennessee Valley? How long is the average wait at emergency rooms in the Tennessee Valley?

One Sunday morning two months ago, Tonia Osieczanek-Damen's 7-year-old daughter woke up with a rash on her face. She took her to the Pediatric Emergency Room at Huntsville Hospital for Women and Children at 11:15 a.m. But she says it took about 5 hours and 20 minutes before they got called back to see a doctor.  

"I had expected a wait, and I know things can't happen just like that, especially at a hospital and people will be seen before you even if they come in after you," said Osieczanek-Damen. " But it was absurd."

Huntsville Hospital disputes that claim. They say their records show her daughter was treated and released in just under five hours. Five hours would be the exception to any hospital's norm, but what is a normal E.R. waiting time?

According to data compiled by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the national average is 28 minutes. That's from the time you walk into the door to the time you're seen by a doctor, nurse practitioner or physician's assistant. In Alabama, the average is 36 minutes.

But in North Alabama, the wait times at four of the largest hospitals are well above that. Decatur-Morgan - 45 minutes, Crestwood - 47 minutes, Athens-Limestone - 48 minutes and Huntsville Hospital- 60 minutes. That's a composite of Huntsville Hospital's main hospital, its hospital in Madison and the Pediatric E.R. at Women's and Children's. Their 60-minute wait is more than double the national average.

Tracy Doughty, Vice President for Emergency and Trauma Services at Huntsville Hospital, doesn't question the accuracy of the numbers in the study. Hospitals report those numbers themselves to the federal government, but he also pointed to the fact that Huntsville Hospital advertises its wait times 24 hours a day on its website. During our interview, those times ranged from 11 to 29 minutes. Are those closer to the norm?

"I would think so,"said Doughty. "Sometimes at main (Huntsville Hospital), if there have been a lot of car wrecks, it might get up to 35, 40 minutes." Still, while some times fall in the low double digits, there were obviously plenty of others above an hour over a year's time to average 60 minutes.

Now, Huntsville Hospital is a Level-1 trauma center, the only one in North Alabama. So, it also handles the most critical patients, and the other two Level-1 trauma centers in the state also have high average wait times. UAB's is 46 minutes, and the University of South Alabama's is 66 minutes. And according to Huntsville Hospital, they handle 75-80% of the ambulance calls in the area.

"Patients in our lobby, they don't see who comes in the back door a lot of times, and it's kind of hard to explain to them," said Doughty.

But Osieczanek-Damen says she checked with the E.R. desk at least four times that December morning. "There were two ambulances that I know of that came in during that time period," said Osieczanek-Damen. "But, I mean, five hours still?"

Hospital officials told me there were 28 patients that came through the Pediatric E.R. that morning with several babies going to intensive care. "They should be prepared to deal with that stuff as well, and if not, they need to possibly adjust their methods," said Osieczanek-Damen.

Doughty says Huntsville Hospital's doing that.  They've added an industrial engineer to the E.R. team, essentially an efficiency expert. "They're looking at all of our processes and looking at errors of not adding value to the patients' visit, and we think we've gotten tons better over the last year," said Doughty.

At Crestwood Medical Center, they're about to break ground on an E.R. expansion, one that should cut down on their 47-minute average wait time. "We have a lot of sick patients who come through," said Director of Marketing Lori Light. "We're seeing a lot of cardiac, a lot of respiratory, flu, a lot of critical patients that require a lot of testing, and many of them are admitted to the hospital, so that does increase the time that they are in the hospital, and it may mean that other patients have to wait a little bit longer."

Farther west, Shoals Hospital is above the state and national average at 41 minutes, but the average wait times for the other two main hospitals in the Shoals are much shorter. Helen Keller's average wait time is 25 minutes and ECM Hospital's is 21 minutes.

"You come in, you get a quick triage, and then you get taken straight back to a room," said E.R. Director Amy Roden. "And that helps decrease our length of stay and wait time in the E.R."

Osieczanek-Damen says six or seven families left without seeing a doctor at the Women's and Children's Pediatric E.R. the morning she was there. She almost left, concerned about her daughter, who had walking pneumonia that led to the rash she came in for.

"Not only are they already sick, and that's the reason that you're there obviously," said Osieczanek-Damen. "But you're sitting there in that waiting room for five hours being exposed to everything else that's there. And it's not helping the case of the child who, obviously, can get sicker a lot easier."

Doughty says their numbers show only 2% of their patients leave before a doctor sees them. But with nearly 90,000 E.R. patients a year, that is more than 1500 people walking out.

"We call it chasing zero," said Doughty. "Having no wait times, nobody leave unhappy. So, we're striving to do that, and we've got work to do but we're pushing forward."

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