Emergency Department Wait Times:
What You Need to Know Before You Go
MaineGeneral Medical Center operates two 24/7 emergency departments – one at the Alfond Center for Health (ACH) in Augusta and the other at Thayer Center for Health (TCH) in Waterville.
In the year before COVID-19, 55,000 people received care at MaineGeneral’s Emergency Department (ED); roughly two-thirds of those at the ACH and one-third at the TCH.
A common concern patients have about the ED is how long they will be in the waiting room before they can see medical staff.
Long waits in the ED are a national issue, and MaineGeneral’s average wait times are similar to those across the nation.
We wanted to give you information before you need emergency care to understand ED wait times.
We sat down with leadership of the ED, Dr. Laurel Parker, ED medical director, and Janelynn Deprey, RN, ED director, as well as Jennifer Riggs, chief nursing officer of MaineGeneral.
First, it is important that the ED is used appropriately. Patients often come to the ED when they may have been able to see their own doctor or receive care at MaineGeneral Express Care. Leaving the ED to true emergency care would help decrease wait times for everyone.
“Right now we have someone in waiting room who has had leg pain for two months; another who has hip pain without a fall,” says Dr. Parker. “They may have been able to get into their primary care provider’s (PCP) office or could have gone to MaineGeneral Express Care. Ongoing health issues are really best addressed by a patient’s PCP. The ED is best for urgent health care needs.”
Next, it is important to know that when a person gets seen, or placed in a room, often depends on severity of symptoms. “Generally, the sickest patient gets seen first,” says Dr. Parker. “It’s not first-come, first-served.”
Deprey adds that it’s sometimes not clear to other patients in the waiting room how urgent another person’s concerns are. “You can’t always tell by someone’s outward appearance how sick they are or what their needs are,” she says. “There are many factors we take into account.”
You also may not see critical patients that are coming to the ED by ambulance as they use a separate entrance.
When you arrive in the ED, you will be seen quickly by a triage nurse who is able to assess your complaint, and start your evaluation and care from the waiting room. While you are waiting, needed these tests can be run and then are available when you are seen by a medical staff member.
Current Pressures on the Emergency Care System
Patients who require emergency care, says Dr. Parker, are coming in sicker, stressing a system of care where more patients need to be admitted, and beds are in short supply.
COVID-19 is only part of the explanation.
Riggs agrees that, overall, beds statewide are difficult to find. This is due to the complicated factors of more and sicker patients, including behavioral health patients, and fewer long-term care beds in the state. This leads to having to room medical patients in the ED, leaving fewer rooms available for patients arriving at the ED.
The result, she says, is that patients stay in the ED longer. There are delays getting patients admitted to an inpatient wing of the hospital; delays in finding behavioral health placement; and difficulty transferring from the hospital to long-term care.
The same lack of resources exist in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. “These facilities have staffing and bed shortages, so we are having to keep patients who would be best placed in those facilities, which compounds our own bed shortage,” Riggs says.
Dr. Parker and Deprey remind the community the Emergency Department is here to provide the very best health care and that no one should avoid going to the ED when they need their services.
“We are all doing our best to get everyone the care and attention they need, as quickly as we can,” Deprey says.