The aim of this study was to document the morbidity associated with long waiting times for laparoscopic cholecystectomy and to relate this to the nature of initial presentation either routine out-patient consultation or emergency admission with acute symptoms. This study was performed over a 50-month period in a DGH (serving a population of 320,000) which lacked sufficient operating capacity to allow routine early cholecystectomy after emergency admission. A total of 387 patients underwent cholecystectomy but 22 of these had an early operation after initial emergency admission with signs of peritonitis and were excluded from the study. The median waiting time for cholecystectomy in this study population of 365 patients was 170 days (range, 6-484) days. Of these 365 patients, 246 (67.4%) were listed for surgery after initial out-patient assessment (out-patient cohort) and 119 (32.6%) were diagnosed after an index emergency admission with symptomatic gallstone disease (emergency cohort). Of the 365 patients, 42 (11.5%) had one or more emergency admissions (57 admissions) with gallstone-related complications whilst on the waiting list for surgery. Complications were acute cholecystitis/biliary colic (n = 40), jaundice/cholangitis (n = 8), acute pancreatitis (n = 6) and perforated gallbladder (n = 3). Re-admissions with gallstone-related complications were much more common in patients whose initial presentation had been as an emergency. Thus, 34 of the 119 emergency cohort (28.5%) required re-admission with complications whilst only 8 of 246 (2.8%) elective cohort were re-admitted. Of the 34 re-admissions in the emergency cohort, 22 occurred within 6 weeks of their discharge from hospital. Median total and postoperative stay were significantly shorter (P < 0.001) in the elective cohort (3 and 2 days, respectively) than the emergency cohort (10 and 3 days, respectively). These results document the high incidence of complications experienced by patients waiting for an elective laparoscopic cholecystectomy. Morbidity is highest in patients with an initial emergency admission. These results suggest that cholecystectomy should be offered to all patients presenting as an emergency with symptomatic gallstones on admission.