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The waiting game: how local hospitals are managing long patient wait times

When you're sick and you want to see a doctor, waiting can be the hardest part. If it requires sitting in the emergency room, that wait can often feel eternal.

It's the waiting game that, minute by minute, can turn into hours. UTEP student Angel Robles wasn't expecting to spend his day in the emergency room at University Medical Center.

“Who goes to a hospital, right? You go to the hospital not for anything nice. You go for something serious," said Robles.

It's a busy day at UMC -- the most active emergency room in a 280-mile radius.

“When I arrived here, there were at least 40 people. Maybe less, but it was a pretty long wait time," said Robles.

Eric Johansen, emergency department director for UMC, said, “We see everyone from those severe motor vehicle accidents that if we don't get them here within 60 minutes they could die."

Johansen runs the emergency room at UMC. It is the only Level One trauma hospital throughout the Borderland.

“Last month we went up to about 180 per day -- generally we run about 160 a day," said Johansen, and that means most patients coming through these doors will typically have to wait.

According to Hospital-stats.org, the average total wait times for a patient visiting the emergency room are:

Total wait times

El Paso Specialty Hospital -- 2h 7m

Las Palmas Medical Center -- 2h 50m

Providence Memorial Hospital -- 3h 0m

Sierra Medical Center -- 3h 18m

East El Paso Physicians -- 3h 47m

Sierra Providence East -- 3h 54m

University Medical Center -- 5h 35m

Dr. Edward Michelson, UMC's emergency room doctor director, said, “The sickest patients only wait seconds to minutes."

Dr. Michelson says their priority is to provide quality care, but the most critical patients will always get seen first.

“We will see anybody no matter what the problem is, but some patients with lower acuity problems will end up waiting longer than the patient having a heart attack, or the stroke, or the person who has been involved in a trauma," said Michelson.

UMC says one of the hospital’s goals has been improving wait times. They want to ensure that every patient stepping in the ER is seen quickly. On a bad day, they say, a patient can wait hours in the waiting room, but on a good day, those waiting times are an hour or less.

UMC has expedited its check-in process to help alleviate wait times. Now a patient will get triaged and evaluated at the same time, right after signing in.

“If iI can get the patient in, get them seen, get their test done, and admit them to a room, that opens up the bed for another patient coming in," said Johansen.

The Hospitals of Providence is the largest network of private hospitals in the El Paso area. Base on the location and facility, officials say their ER wait times can also vary.

“The emergency room wait time really depends on the acuity of the patients that are there at that particular time,” said Kurt Gross, director of marketing and communication for the Hospitals of Providence.

As he gave us a tour of the new Northwest campus, he explained that the flu season will always impact wait times. Additionally, he says you can't always tell what's happening behind the scenes.

Gross says, "So even if the waiting room is not very full or there's a few people waiting, there may be significant traffic that is coming in through the ambulances."

He says one of their priorities at all Providence hospitals is reducing how long a person sits in the waiting room.

“We work very hard to minimize those wait times as much as possible. And we have care continuity members whose job it is to communicate to the people that might be waiting, what's happening behind the scenes," said Gross.

One major factor that impacts ER wait times, at both public and private hospitals, is the lack of primary care along the Borderland.

“A significant amount of people in El Paso rely on the emergency room to support their primary care," said Gross.

Dr. Michelson said, “A number of patients that we see come with primary-care problems that could be served in a clinic."

They agree that people need to know when it's necessary to come to the emergency room.

Gross said, “When you have cold or flu symptoms, that's really a perfect scenario to go to an urgent care clinic versus more serious medical conditions, like chest pain or perhaps a stroke."

“We will not turn them away, but they need to understand that they will wait longer because we have to care for the sickest patients first," said Dr. Michelson.

They all stress that when it comes to emergency medicine, there is a delicate balance between getting it right and getting it done quickly.

“We want to make sure that we get the patient seen quickly, get the right care going, make sure they get the right treatment and take our time, so we make sure that we're not rushing. Because when you're rushing, you make mistakes," said Johansen.

Meantime, for patient Eric Robles, his wait time at UMC was less than an hour-- although, to see a doctor, he was willing to wait more.

“I had heard when I was on that side of the room that it would take two hours and 30 minutes here. That was the person that was waiting the longest here," said Robles.

Both UMC and The Hospitals of Providence have urgent care centers and self-standing emergency rooms to help provide more access to care.

Both hospitals are also partnering with Texas Tech to train resident doctors at their facilities. They say that when residents train here, they tend to stay here serving the community, and that will help alleviate the doctor and primary-care shortage.

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