I-Team finds North Carolina has 4th longest wait times at the Emergency Room

The ABC11 I-Team discovers people wait on average 38 minutes for non-life threatening cases.
February 3, 2014 2:57:38 PM PST
When minutes count, you go to the Emergency Room hoping to see a doctor quickly. But the ABC11 I-Team discovered that across North Carolina people wait on average 38 minutes for non-life threatening cases. That's the fourth longest wait in the country.

At many local hospitals though, you'll wait twice as long. Margaret and Russell Schuster told the I-Team they had a frustrating night waiting in the ER at Duke Regional Hospital - what used to be Durham Regional.

"I was in severe pain, hard time breathing because I got the bruised ribs, and totally neglected," said Margaret.

She told us she tripped over a tree stump in their front yard - hurting her head, arm, and ribs. The couple says they arrived in the ER at 1:30 a.m.

"Nobody came around to ask her how she was. It was really difficult to keep my cool. I was getting quite irritated with the whole situation - just sitting there waiting for something to happen," said Russell.

The Schusters are not alone in their frustration. According to government data assembled by Pro Publica, ER patients at Duke Regional wait on average 70 minutes - more than twice the national average of 28 minutes.

Pro Publica also looked at the average length of time before a patient is sent home. That's more than an hour longer at Duke Regional than the national average.

The Schusters say the night they were in the ER, there was only one doctor on duty and a long line of patients.

"They were sleeping on the floors. People were gagging and coughing - two ladies crying," said Margaret. "People sleeping, pregnant women stretched out on the floor, you know, hours and hours of this."

The Pro Publica data shows - at Duke Regional's sister hospital - Duke University Medical Center - ER patients wait a slightly longer average - 72-minutes.

"We recognize that we have some opportunity to improve wait time in our [emergency departments]," said Dr. Tom Owens, Chief Medical Officer with Duke University Health System.

We asked why wait times were so long at one of the finest hospitals in the country, where people come from around the world to get care.

"I don't want to make excuses, because we do have an opportunity, but certainly the overall complexity of the patients that come to an ED Like ours has a big impact," said Dr. Owens.

Owens explained thousands of people are transferred to Duke every year from other hospitals.

"Those patients take longer to see, are more complex. They're sicker. They need more therapeutic and diagnostic interventions in the Emergency Department," he said.

Here's a look at the average ER wait times at other large local hospitals:

  • WakeMed Raleigh - 65 minutes.
  • UNC Hospital - 54 minutes.
  • Rex Hospital - 53 minutes.
  • Cape Fear Valley Medical Center - 49 minutes.
  • Duke Health Raleigh - 44 minutes.
  • WakeMed Cary - 43 minutes.

"I think all hospitals struggle with this," offered Dr. Matt Bitner who is the medical director of the emergency department at Maria Parham Hospital in Henderson.

His hospital has the shortest average wait time in the viewing area - just 15-minutes - which is half as long as the national average.

"We switched our sort of registration and patient flow process," said Bitner.

He explained they've figured out how to get patients to a doctor quickly by reengineering the process and adjusting staffing.

"We try to match supply and demand. So, we place and schedule physicians according to when the arrivals by hour are. And it's pretty predictable," said Bitner.

The Schusters said they think Duke Regional could learn something about staffing from Maria Parham.

"It was ridiculous, flat out ridiculous," said Russell Schuster.

Margaret said she waited an hour to see a nurse, three and a half hours to get x-rays, and waited nearly six hours to see a doctor. After seven and a half hours, she was finally able to go home.

"We got this letter, where they apologized because it was an 'extremely busy evening,'" she recalled.

"I'm disappointed. Hospitals in my estimation are supposed to serve the community. That's one thing they are not doing," said Russell.

Dr. Owens told us Duke regrets it when a patient like Margaret doesn't have a good experience at a Duke hospital. He also said they've made changes at Duke Regional by adding more doctors and nurses at busy times to reduce waits.

If you are dealing with a life threatening emergency, you should always call 911. Those people of course go to the front of the line at the ER.

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