Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Are those 'ER Wait Time' billboards accurate?

        Health | ER

Waiting at the emergency room can be frustrating. How accurate are predicted wait times?
Waiting at the emergency room can be frustrating. How accurate are predicted wait times?
Caiaimage/Robert Daly/Getty Images

If you really need a medical professional in an emergency, you're not going to be terribly preoccupied checking wait times. Nobody in their right mind is going to look at their severed finger, look at the flashy "45-minute wait time" billboard lining the highway, look back at their stumpy appendage and think, "eh, I'll stop in once the lunch rush is over."

Emergencies require swift responses. The emergency department in your area is no doubt going to make sure you get the care you need, as soon as you need it — billboard waiting times or not. And if you're staring at that bleeding finger and thinking, "What highway are you on where you have the opportunity to read billboards for emergency department wait times," fair enough.

So let's start first by saying that in recent years, hospitals around the United States have started advertising their emergency room wait times on billboards, websites — even apps for mobile devices [source: Florida Hospital]. The general point is that hospitals are excited to show the world how fast, efficient and well-oiled their emergency department machines are. Of course, that assumes that the times are accurate. Would they even show a wait time of 4.5 hours? And does the advertised wait time only apply to some?

The answer depends on who you're asking. For instance, some hospitals might advertise that their wait time is based on how long it takes patients to see a triage nurse, as opposed to the physician or practitioner who eventually evaluates them [source: ACEP]. That might make the wait time seem reasonable ("Hey, I got to a room within a half hour!"). In reality, that could be misleading (" ... but I waited in that room for three hours until I was actually seen by the doctor"). According to the American College of Emergency Physicians, there's simply not a lot of evidence that these advertised wait times actually reflect an accurate estimate. Instead, they're mostly used for marketing purposes [source: ACEP].

Perhaps that's not surprising. But the consequences could be problematic. Of course, there's the obvious one: It would be terrible for someone to avoid emergency care just because they assume they won't get seen soon enough. Ironically, posting super quick wait times might also present a problem, since it might lead to more nonemergency patients striding into the ER when they don't necessarily need emergency attention.

Bottom line? Those billboards are probably a good-faith guess of wait times, but don't depend on them for extreme reliability. A sudden rush, a ballpark guess — and a whole lot of marketing — might make them more optimistic than realistic. But if you are in a real emergency? Go to the ER. Ultimately, they'll decide how soon is practical for you to receive treatment.


More to Explore