How Emergency Room Staffing Impacts Patient Wait Times

Last Updated on March 21, 2024

How Emergency Room Staffing Impacts Patient Wait Times, and Why It Matters

Research shows that emergency room staffing levels can have a major impact on patient wait times. Too often, the result is patients being turned away without being seen. As a result, hospitals that may be struggling to retain or recruit staff can experience a direct financial hit. What can leaders of these organizations do to offset the current challenges and ensure appropriate ER staffing?

How Emergency Room Staffing Impacts Patient Wait Times

In today’s high-demand environment, any type of clinical understaffing can have consequences. Directly linked to clinical outcomes and the patient experience, staffing can directly impact a hospital’s overall profitability. And it mostly does so by affecting not just patient wait times but also worker retention, patient satisfaction, and other important metrics.

This seems clear enough on its face. After all, more workers will naturally deliver more care to more people. According to clinical research, this is especially true when it comes to emergency room staffing. The more patients each ER nurse oversees, the longer the average patient hospital stay, according to a recent analysis of clinical data.

How Staffing Affects ER Length of Stay

Other researchers have pointed out that hospitals that decrease emergency room staffing usually see increased length of stay among patients. Worse still, some patients respond to insufficient ER staffing by leaving the facility without being seen at all. And that represents not just a failure to deliver care and earn positive patient satisfaction, but lost revenue, too.

Those same researchers also note that demand for, and use of, emergency care has risen in recent years. Yet there hasn’t also been a “corresponding rise” in available services, leaving many hospitals without the baseline personnel they need to ensure care. The result is escalating wait times that can impact patient satisfaction, employee morale, and an organization’s financial health.

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The Challenge of Successful Emergency Room Staffing

Many of the challenges around emergency room staffing are difficult to overcome. For many facilities, adequate staffing is restricted by budget-cutting policies from years past. Hiring blocks or restrictions on nurse overtime may have seemed necessary measures in the past. However, their usefulness may have passed in a post-Covid era.  

Today, most hospitals must work to maintain emergency room staffing amid growing demand and a shortage of workers. A report from Boston’s WGBH-TV describes a situation where some patients “end up leaving the emergency department without getting care because they’ve been waiting so long,” echoing the findings of clinical researchers.

How Fewer Nurses Affect Patient Care

Lack of proper staffing in ER departments leads to fewer available beds, and fewer nurses. And nurses are often the driving force behind patient flow, including timely admissions, transfers and discharges. Not having enough affects an emergency room’s ability to function at top capacity.

Inadequate ER staffing can also negatively affect the well being of workers, who may be distressed at their inability to treat more patients. “As a provider, I’d far rather have that” — patients waiting to be seen, however long — “than not know those patients that are coming in and leaving without being seen,” as Mass General Brigham’s Dr. Michael VanRooyen told WGBH.

“We need to come up with available solutions to mitigate this issue,” he added.

Solutions for Improving Emergency Department Staffing

What can leaders do? While lawmakers in some states are moving forward with legislation to tackle the issue, most organizations can’t afford to wait for them to take action. For leaders looking for more immediate solutions, partnering with a specialized emergency room staffing provider, or a full clinical workforce management partner, could provide a productive path forward.

With access to a robust, nationwide pool of nurses and other clinical workers — including permanent, temp and travel staff — dedicated healthcare staffing agencies can help organizations can more readily scale their workforce up or down, as needed. This includes healthcare professionals skilled in emergency medicine, as well as closely related fields like acute and critical care.

Integrating that staffing capacity with a full-time, strategic workforce solutions partner expands that advantage even further. It helps leaders predict and integrate the cost of additional staff in a way that supports overall strategy, rather than serving as an additional expense. Subsequently, this lets organizations enjoy the benefits of having a flexible, scalable workforce without the cost of extensive hiring.

In addition, these same partners can offer organizations a more efficient way to fulfill essential workforce tasks like contracting, payroll/IC compliance, and more. By streamlining many complex and time-consuming tasks into one easily managed line item, healthcare managed service providers (MSPs) can help simplify and modernize key functions. The result is greater efficiency and cost savings.

Improve Emergency Department Staffing with CareerStaff

At CareerStaff, we’re proud to be a leader in healthcare workforce management. Learn more about what our industry-leading solutions can do for your organization. You can contact us here for more info, or submit a staffing request now.

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