Howard University Multicultural Media Academy in partnership with the Dow Jones News Fund
A patient walks into the emergency room at Howard University Hospital in the morning of June 28. (Photo: Johana Gonzalez-Cruz/VoicesofTomorrow.news)

The Crisis of ER Wait Times in Washington: A Closer Look at Patient Impact 

Wait times at hospital emergency departments in Washington, D.C., are among the highest in the country. Learn about the impact on patients, and what they have to say.

By Johana Gonzalez-Cruz

Long wait times for emergency care are causing patients nationwide and to consider leaving hospitals before receiving medical attention, raising concerns about their immediate health outcomes and critical care they might miss. 

Hospitals in Washington, D.C.,  had the longest wait times for ER stays across the country in 2023, averaging five hours and 29 minutes per visit, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). 

“Long stays in the emergency department before a patient leaves may be a sign that the emergency department is understaffed or overcrowded,” CMS said in its quality measures of timely and effective care. “This may result in delays in treatment, increased suffering for those who wait and unpleasant treatment environments.”

Wait times in Washington range from 3 hours and 4 minutes at Sibley Memorial Hospital to 5 hours and 44 minutes at United Medical Center, according to HospitalStats.org. Howard University Hospital (HUH) has a wait time of four hours and 23 minutes. 

Donna Smith, who is in her mid-50s, is both a cancer and diabetes patient. She has constant joint pains, which may be arthritis, but says her primary physician has been unavailable for a month.

So, she takes two buses to visit the emergency department at Howard University Hospital. On her fifth trip to the ER, Smith said she left without being seen on the previous four days after waiting an average of four hours each visit.

“I take 14 prescriptions a day just to live,” Smith says. “And every time I run out, I have to come here. Then I’ll sit here. I’ve been here four times a week. Y’all can’t get it right. Where’s the helper?” 

Rashida Coleman, a patient with a positive ER experience at Howard University Hospital, stands in front of the bus she uses to commute place to place. (Photo: Johana Gonzalez-Cruz/VoicesofTomorrow.news)

Rashida Coleman had a more positive experience at Howard’s emergency room a few years ago. She visited the ER with a bacterial infection, seeking amoxicillin, an antibacterial medicine. Although the ER doctor suggested a different treatment, her wait time was no longer than 15 minutes from door to the examining room and she describes her visit as quick.

“There weren’t a lot of people in the waiting room,” Coleman said. “I was in and out. I’m from here. I’m gonna get what I know I need from this hospital. I considered getting amoxicillin from a regular doctor, but I felt like I can come here quicker.” 

Dr. William Strudwick, an emergency medicine physician who oversees the department at HUH, said that wait times are typically measured from door to provider — the time it takes from entering the ER to being seen by a doctor. The American College of Emergency Physicians recommends door-to-provider time as a standard measure for all hospitals, rather than focusing on the entire period that patients spend in an emergency department.

“Our door-to-provider time fluctuates from month to month, but is generally about 40 minutes on average,” Dr. Strudwick said. The ER sees about 150 patients a day, with the hospital having over 400 beds, according to the District of Columbia Hospital Association.

Dr. Strudwick also notes that many patients taking up space in the ER have conditions that could have been treated in urgent care or by a primary physician. Known as “vertical patients,” they typically have non-life-threatening conditions and are treated without needing to lie down in a bed. These patients make up about 60% of those seen in the ER, he said. 

“Patients are assessed on objective criteria like vital signs,” Dr. Strudwick explained. “If their condition is serious, they are seen immediately. If it’s less urgent, they enter a different queue.” 

To manage wait times, Howard employs a triaging method. “Even patients in the waiting room are monitored,” he said. “We have nurses in triage who keep an eye on them to ensure that if their condition changes, we can respond immediately.”

“D.C. has a good health-care system,” Dr. Strudwick said. “It’s a matter of residents to inform themselves on the treatment they can receive.”

“Our door-to-provider time fluctuates from month to month, but is generally about 40 minutes on average,” said Dr. William Strudwick, who runs the emergency department at Howard University Hospital.

Hospital wait times in Washington  and elsewhere remain a critical issue, with potential life-threatening consequences for patients who decide to leave without care. Leaving even a minute before getting attended can impact someone’s life. 

Some patients experience efficient care, like Rashida Coleman. Others endure long wait times that can bring consequences to their health. Addressing these issues is important to ensure there is equitable medical attention, highlighting the need for improvements within hospitals. There can be a difference in outcomes when implementing even one method like triaging. 

“There’s days that are harder than others, where we say ‘Wow, that was a busy day! I wish I could’ve gotten to patients faster,’” Dr. Strudwick said. “Sometimes patients have a perception they should have been seen faster. You have to have those discussions with families, and you want them to understand that we have still not taken our eye off of their health.”

Johana Gonzalez-Cruz is a reporter for VoicesofTomorrow.news through the Howard University Multicultural Media Academy. She is a senior at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Maryland.

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