Urgency in the ER: How long are you waiting?

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Most emergency physicians said emergency room visits increased last year, according to a new poll released Monday by the American College of Emergency Physicians.

The requirement to have health coverage under the Affordable Care Act took effect January 1, 2014.

Last year, 28 percent of physicians said the volume of patients to their emergency rooms increased greatly. Another 47 percent said volume increased slightly.

The ACEP noted in the previous year less than half of emergency physicians reported increases in ER visits.

Wait times at emergency rooms have long been a concern both for patients and physicians.

Dana Spangler, who lives in Manchester Township, York County, recalls the frustration she felt when she began to suffer complications from treatment of early stage breast cancer.

“I went in (to the emergency department). It was kind of early afternoon. I waited. It was a seven-and-a-half-hour wait,” she recalls. “That first time was actually the worst time. But, I have waited between four to five hours on other occasions.”

In Pennsylvania, the average emergency room wait time before a patient sees a doctor is 24 minutes, according to data provided to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Throughout the region, average wait times can vary. Lancaster General reports an average wait of 14 minutes; Penn State Hershey's average wait is 21 minutes; Holy Spirit in Cumberland County has an average wait of 53 minutes. To look up information about your nearest hospitals, click here.

Dr. David Vega, who's chair of emergency medicine at WellSpan's York Hospital, notes his hospital is seeing tens of thousands more patients in a year than the hospital was designed to accommodate.

"Our department was built in the early 90s, and it's certainly showing its age a little bit," said Dr. Vega.

The ER was designed to treat about 45,000 patients in a year. Last year, nearly 80,000 came to York Hospital. The hospital's average wait time is 33 minutes, which is nine minutes above the state and national average.

"The issue of volume in emergency departments is a tricky one because there's a lot of variability there," said Dr. Veaga. "But we do anticipate we're going to see some increase year after year."

Dr. Vega notes that, though there are more patients with access to insurance, there aren't enough primary care doctors to treat all of them. That can lead to more patients showing up to the ER, even when they likely don't need ER care.

The hospital is in the middle of a renovation project aimed at reducing wait times and improving patients' experiences.

The layout will change, creating rooms for patients with behavioral health issues. Beds will be taken out of hallways. There will also be a rapid unit for patients with less severe illnesses and injuries.

"It's a difficult situation because we don't want anybody to wait, and our goal with the whole emergency department redesign is to get to as close to a zero-wait department as we can," said Dr. Vega.

At PinnacleHealth's Harrisburg Hospital, the average wait time is 46 minutes, which is 22 minutes above the state average.

But, the hospital takes a step many others don't by allowing patients to see in real time what the wait time is at the emergency room. (Click here)

"We want to put the word out that we can see people not just effectively but in a reasonable time frame as well," said Dr. Craig Skurcenski, chair of PinnacleHealth's emergency medicine department.

He notes the hospital's managers have taken some steps to bring down wait times. A physician assistant or nurse practitioner meets patients in the triage area when they come in to initiate care more quickly. There's also a primary care office in the emergency room.

"As healthcares expand their overall capacity to manage patients both at the inpatient and in the emergency department, wait times can diminish," said Skurcenski.

ProPublica has created an interactive website where you can enter your location and find out what the average wait time is at hospitals nearest to you. (Click here)