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Can Long Emergency Room Wait Times Kill You? What You Need to Know

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Anyone who's ever been to the emergency room for a non-life-threatening injury or illness knows that you may end up waiting quite a long time to be seen by a doctor. But is that wait time dangerous? It can be. Emergency room wait times are on the rise, with some hospitals reaching four times the national average wait time of 28 minutes. In 2011, there was an extreme example of just how damaging these wait times can be. One little girl deteriorated so badly over the course of her five-hour wait in the emergency room that she ultimately ended up needing several amputations. Find out what you need to know about how to deal with long emergency room waits.

Avoid the Wait If You Can

If at all possible, it's best to avoid overly long emergency room waits. In many areas, emergency rooms post their wait times on their websites or you can call and ask for an estimated wait time before you go. While that's no guarantee—it's always possible that more pressing emergency cases will arrive while you're waiting—it will give you a good estimate to go by. It may be worth driving farther to an emergency room with a lower wait time than to go to a closer emergency room with a longer wait.

Another option is to try urgent care centers in your local area. Urgent care centers typically specialize in one or a few specific types of medical issues, like heart disease or obstetrics, or they take less emergent cases. As a result, they tend to have lower wait times.

Keep the Staff Updated

If you can't avoid the wait time, it's important to keep the medical staff updated on your condition while you wait. If your symptoms are getting progressively worse, you may need to be moved to the front of the line. Emergency rooms use a process called triage to treat patients—instead of operating on a first-come, first-serve basis, they treat the people with the most severe symptoms first.

That means that if you arrive with a low fever and cold symptoms, you'll probably be prioritized below people showing symptoms of heart failure, people with serious injuries, or people with high fevers. However, if your fever rises while you're waiting, if you begin to feel faint or dizzy, if you develop a rash, or if you begin to experience heart palpitations, it could be a sign that you're more seriously ill than first thought, and you should be moved up in the queue. Report any new or worsened symptoms to the nurse on duty. If you feel that you aren't being taken seriously, ask to speak to a charge nurse or shift supervisor.

Know Your Rights

If you experience harm as the result of a long emergency room wait time, then you may be entitled to compensation from the hospital for your losses or injuries. Failure to treat or an unreasonable delay in treatment is a form of medical negligence, which means that you may be able to bring a medical malpractice suit against the hospital, against the individual staff members that made the decision to delay treatment, or both.

In order to bring a lawsuit, you'll need to prove that you've experienced harm. Harm could be physical, financial, or both. For instance, if you become disabled or develop chronic or long-term health problems as the result of a wait that could have been avoided with timely treatment, that's an example of harm. Or, if you end up having to pay for additional treatments to correct damage that wouldn't have occurred if you'd been seen in a more timely fashion—even if you regain your health entirely in the end—then the hospital may be liable for the extra expenses. You may also be able to claim damages for lost time at work, lost of quality of life, and pain and suffering.

If you believe that you've been harmed by an excessive emergency room wait time, you should contact a medical malpractice attorney in your area. A medical malpractice attorney can help you determine whether or not you have a viable case as the result of a long emergency room wait. Find one through a website like