Background: Emergency departments (EDs) are traditionally designed to provide rapid evaluation and stabilization and are neither staffed nor equipped to provide prolonged care. Longer ED length of stay (LOS) may compromise quality of care and contribute to delays in the emergency evaluation of other patients.
Objectives: The objective was to determine whether ED LOS increased between 2001 and 2005 and whether trends varied by patient and hospital factors.
Methods: This was a retrospective analysis of a nationally representative sample of 138,569 adult ED visits from the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NHAMCS), 2001 to 2005. ED LOS was measured from registration to discharge.
Results: Median ED LOS increased 3.5% per year from 132 minutes in 2001 to 154 minutes in 2005 (p-value for trend < 0.001). There was a larger increase among critically ill patients for whom ED LOS increased 7.0% annually from 185 minutes in 2001 to 254 minutes in 2005 (p-value for trend < 0.01). ED LOS was persistently longer for black/African American, non-Hispanic patients (10.6% longer) and Hispanic patients (13.9% longer) than for non-Hispanic white patients, and these differences did not diminish over time. Among factors potentially associated with increasing ED LOS, a large increase was found (60.1%, p-value for trend < 0.001) in the use of advanced diagnostic imaging (computed tomography [CT], magnetic resonance imaging [MR], and ultrasound [US]) and in the proportion of ED visits at which five or more diagnostic or screening tests were ordered (17.6% increase, p-value for trend = 0.001). The proportion of uninsured patients was stable throughout the study period, and EDs with predominately privately insured patients experienced significant increases in ED LOS (4.0% per year from 2001 to 2005, p-value for trend < 0.01).
Conclusions: Emergency department LOS in the United States is increasing, especially for critically ill patients for whom time-sensitive interventions are most important. The disparity of longer ED LOS for African Americans and Hispanics is not improving.