Why Busy ERs May Be Better

Medically reviewed in December 2020

You’re having a medical emergency—do you go to the emergency room where the waiting room always seems crowded? Or head to the quieter one where you figure you’ll be seen more quickly?

The answer may surprise you.

According to a study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, emergency rooms that treated more patients per year also seemed to have some of the best outcomes.

The study analyzed data on 17.5 million emergency department patients treated at over 3,000 hospitals around the US for overall mortality. While the authors warn against telling patients to change their ER choice based on this data, Dr. Keith Kocher, the lead author, stated, “The bottom line is that emergency departments and hospitals perform differently. There really are differences in care, and they matter.”

The researchers concluded that 24,000 fewer patients would die each year if all emergency patients received the kind of medical treatment provided at the busiest emergency departments. The findings also took into account factors such as patients’ health and income level, location of the hospital and technology.

So, what does this mean for you?

  • When it comes to critical, time-sensitive cases—such as sepsis, lung failure and heart attack—hospitals that see more patients with those conditions tend to have better outcomes. This is less important for more run-of-the-mill conditions (for instance, there wasn’t a significant difference in the treatment of pneumonia).

Does it mean you should drive farther to go to a bigger ER? In a word: No. Since time is often of the essence and you may not know what your condition is, delaying care in order to reach one specific hospital can be dangerous. When it comes to a medical emergency, any ER is better than none. However, if you have the choice of two ERs that are a similar distance apart, you may want to consider the one that regularly treats more patients.

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