Why You Wait 6 Hours in an Emergency Room

Updated on November 11, 2017

Are you frustrated? I know I am.

Have you ever been to an emergency room where you spent the better part of your day either in the waiting room or lying on an uncomfortable bed on wheels, desperately wondering when someone was going to tell you what it is that is wrong with you—or fix what you already know is wrong? Me too! I work in one.

Not only is visiting an emergency room a grueling experience for you, it is a grueling experience for those of us who work in them as well. As a registered nurse, I have found that we, the nurses, typically take the brunt of the population's frustration with the ever popular (sarcastic sigh) American health care system. This saddens me and makes me want to spread the word to all that it's just not our fault! (Not all of us anyway).

I think you may be surprised to find out that long wait times in emergency rooms are typically not caused by the staff at all. Why so long then? Are you ready for this? The patients make wait times so long. Don't believe me? The next time you are in an ER wretching your guts up because you have some vicious gastroenteritis and haven't even been able to hold down ginger ale...take a look around you. You just may see someone else with the same complaint as you, but they are kicked back, laughing. Why are they there you ask? Well, that is the question of the day—every day—if you are staff in an ER. This is only one example of many that I can provide you. And this is the exact reason that ERs are flooded to and above capacity. Somewhere along the line, ERs have become America's clinic or replacement for a Primary Care Doctor.

What this means to you: as a patient that is in severe pain or discomfort, you must wait your turn as others bombard us for pregnancy tests, gynecological exams, work excuses, sore throats, sniffles, and sneezes that would not normally be considered in need of emergent care. Don't get me wrong, I love my patients, and even the ones who come in for the less than emergent care often make my day and bring a smile to my face. But as I care for them, I could be caring for you faster and more efficient. When they walk through those ER doors, they rate my attention as much as anyone else does, unless a life or limb situation presents.

What this means for me: you are mad at me. You are mad at the doctor. You are mad at the world because you are hurting, or vomiting, or your loved one is sick and you are sitting in the waiting room because there are no beds in the ER. You hate me when I walk into your room because I made you wait. You hate me because I am wearing that blue uniform and I am one of them. You hate me because I cannot give you anything for pain without a doctor's order and it may be another hour before a doctor makes it in to see you. You hate me because you feel like I am going to let you die right there.

I know that you are angry and that you hate me. But I will still do my job, and I will care for you to the best of my ability. You will argue with me and tell me how incompetent I am and that my place of employment is a joke. I will smile. Not because I am laughing at you, but because I am struggling with the very same feelings that you are. I am angry too. I am angry that I cannot heal you and that I cannot take your pain away. I am angry that you had to wait. I am angry at the person who was in the room before you complaining of abdominal pain eating their Doritos and drinking their Pepsi. Their tests were all negative (meaning they're okay), and nothing was wrong with them. But they did ask me for some Vicodin and a work excuse on the way out. And we gave them Vicodin and a work excuse because pain is subjective and who are we to judge.

That is why you wait 6 hours in an emergency room.

All my love to the truly sick people of the world. I hope that someday you will reclaim emergency rooms everywhere!

© 2009 coryann


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      Jen 17 months ago

      I call bullshit on this one. Why? Because you try to see your primary care doctor for something like .. lets say a small lesion that won't heal and is turning black... you know its either a bad spider bite or a skin cancer and the doctor will refer you to another dr for a biopsy, that the emergency room isn't the place you need. You call, can't speak to a person so you go to the office to at least speak to a human. Doc is there, doc has four hundred people scheduled for every hour of the day every day for the next six months. Doctor can't see you until July, staff tells you to go to the emergency room. You go to the emergency room, the ER dr calls your primary doctor on the phone, they give you a bottle of penicillin just in case and tell you to see your primary care dr in 3 days because they will need to refer you to another doctor for a biopsy. So you go for your appointment three days later and get scheduled to see another doctor 3 months from now and here is the kicker: Go back to the ER if any other body parts start to rot or fall off.

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      Dan 2 years ago

      Your all missing the point , supply and demand , if your average rate of patient increases your cycle time should not change if you are properly staffing. This is a straight up a supply chain issue.

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      TheLarryBrown 3 years ago

      Will I think you're blaming the victims. Emergency room care needs to be fast. Get 'em in, get 'em out. If anyone is laying in an emergency room bed for 6 hours?????? That system is obviously broken. We took my 90 year old mother to the emergency room on a Saturday in 4th largest city of the country Houston, Texas for an unexplained sudden onset protruding bulge on her abdomen. We took her in at 3pm. At 6pm I left her with my brother to go see Steve Martin in concert playing bluegrass. At 11pm we were totally shocked to find her still in the emergency room untreated!!!!!!! There is exactly one excuse for that, and that is that the emergency room in question is totally broken and worse than useless. There was one doctor on duty. One! In Houston! How many doctors would I find on duty at the emergency room in the smallest town in America? After griping the doctor out thoroughly, in a loud voice, he walked out on us. We got up and walked out and were asked to sign a paper that we were leaving against medical advice. I wrote on it in large letters "THERE IS NO MEDICAL ADVICE AVAILABLE AT THIS CHICKEN SHIT SO CALLED EMERGENCY ROOM AND HOSPITAL." We drove around the corner to a 24 hour urgent care clinic. Someone CAME OUT OF THE BUILDING and met us at the car, wheeled my mom directly to an exam room where the doctor was waiting, she was given the appropriate exam, diagnosed with a hernia and discharged in 15 minutes total. You tell me who is wrong, CoryAnn, me or you? On a later occasion I again took my mom to the same emergency room, but this time I asked would they be able to treat my mom in a reasonable time, like half an hour. The admitting people rolled their eyes and said "no way, we still have 8 people to triage ahead of her." WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT????? Triage takes 1 second per patient. This guy has a tummy ache, this guy has a broken arm. At that point I realized that a hospital emergency room is a system that no longer works and I won't ever be visiting again. We drove over to the same urgent care clinic and were seen, examed, and discharged by a board certified doctor in the same 15 minutes. CoryAnn, there may be many reasons for an inexcusable 6 hour visit to a hospital emergency room, but sick patients are not one of those reasons.

      Your post is a great example of self-delusional denial. The tunnel-vision required to observe 6 hour ER waits and then deduce that the patients are to blame is simply sad. Wake up CoryAnn! Your ER needs to treat people and it's not doing that, are you going to fix the system or fix the patients? Does it make sense for there to be ONE DOCTOR on duty in the 4th largest city of the country? Can any rational reason explain a sick 90 year old woman to be kept in the ER for 8 hours, under any circumstances whatsoever? Why is an urgent care clinic under the same stresses as you able to treat patients quickly but you are not? How on earth can a case be made for lengthy triage procedures?

      Here's the truth: lawyers and hospital administration have turned the hospital ER system into a travesty. Forget the ER and use urgent care clinics. They have board certified emergency care doctors and probably have an attached or nearby hospital if needed.

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      Daniel T. 3 years ago

      The biggest problem with the ER are the drunks, and druggies that the police bring in. They are placed in rooms right away. Often they cause trouble and have to be restrained. They no longer take people to the drunk tank at jails, they bring them to the ER. I work in an ER.

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      Tim 3 years ago

      In ER, little or no attention is good. Be concerned when a bunch of nurses and docs flood your bedside. I been working in emergency for 14 years. We know who's dying and who isn't. I'm sorry you're in pain waiting. But we're doing our best and we won't let you die.

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      national average wait time 3 years ago

      8 hours

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      soap box 3 years ago

      Complainers piss me off with their self righteous bullshit. Boo hoo, I have to wait. If you have to wait in the ER, you never had to be there in the first place. Most people I see waiting in the ER complain so much that they forgot why they were there. The people who don't were seen quickly because they needed medical attention and had no time to complain. Stop abusing the ER so people who need it get the best care possible.

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      3 years ago

      Do any of you people complain to the doctor that you wait so long? Or do you just bitch to the poor nurses? All of you sore throats, earaches, and bullshit , STOP GOING TO ER.

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      Liz 4 years ago

      While I agree and understand your reasoning for the long wait, my understanding was that ER triage was not based on a first come first served basis, but rather the level of severity of each case? Is this no longer the true? I recently had to wait for 5 1/2 hours in a wheelchair with my leg elevated to be seen for an injury that wouldn't stop bleeding. I had a 3 inch gash on my right foot due to a glass jar that fell on my foot and shattered. It severed an artery and I required 6 stitches. Others in the waiting room that were waiting before me had flu related symptoms (I overheard them talking) and were seen before me. I now also have a pinched nerve in my lower back that is quite painful for sitting in a wheelchair for so long.

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      Kevin Irving 4 years ago

      This is a load of crock. It doesn't take that long to diagnose a person. I've been to the doctor and waited just to be seen for 3-6 hours minimum. Now are you gonna tell me that 100% of the time, it's another patient. No, sometimes the doctors see you and then they walk around the corner and just get to laughing and joking and wasting time. Then it doesn't take long to create an xray and get it to the doctor. I've worked at a hospital and xray facility and it literally only took 7 minutes to make the xrays. The real problem is that they are being designed to make the process as difficult as possible even if you die. When it never matters what transpires and you still have be there 3-6+hours, that's not patients. Its the system designed to be slow for a reason. They make money by you being there a specific set amount of time and that is the truth. They are billing the insurance companies for the time that you are there. I was there one time for a simple cold that progressed to possible pneumonia, I just needed to have a doctor declare that I couldn't breathe, so that I could be prescribed antibiotics. They made me wait 4+ hours before they saw me. Then they put me in a waiting room for another 3 and then a doctor came to see me, listened to me for 2 mins tops and heard my situation listened to my congested breathing, and said okay you need to have antibiotics, told me to get dressed and I will be leaving shortly, then he made me wait another 3 hours just to leave. Not for an xray, not for exams, not to sign papers, but for him to write antibiotics on a paper and then I can leave. It wasn't me it was them. Then the bill comes for over 500 dollars. HE DID NOTHING! I waited for him to see me just so he could fake my situation to being more than what it is. I couldn't get antibiotics unless a doc sees me, but to get that it took 7+ hours when it should have been 10 mins tops. People it has and always been about the money. Until we all put our stories together and inspect the money trail, then you'll see why they make you stay longer than necessary.

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      Wow 4 years ago

      I worked in an ER for 7 years, and have also been a patient. It's not fun, either way. I have been the patient in the hall, who never was seen, and finally passed the kidney stone that was completely obstructing when I arrived. I have also been the employee who was physically attacked by the out of control patient that took drugs and the police brought in wearing handcuffs. Trust me, if you are very ill, the staff in the ER would much rather take care of you, than the one who is there with the sniffles. Unfortunately, the person with the sniffles signed in before you, and made it back there already. And the reason it takes so long to be seen is because the doctors and nurses are people. People that are trying to be thorough- and have a TON of paperwork, to document every teensy detail in the event that the patient decides to sue. People that are trying to give each patient the time they need. People that aren't perfect, but really are trying to provide you the best care they can.

      I have been frustrated with ER care. My brother was seen and discharged from an ER, and went into cardiac arrest before he made the 5 minute car ride home. He was revived, and then transferred to a larger facility, that could better care for him, but spent a week in the ICU, some of that unconscious. Then was sent to another floor, where they discharged him home, even though he was still too weak to walk. So yeah, I get it. But try to be patient... It's call the "Practice of Medicine" because it hasn't been perfected. If you have a question, ask it. They will answer to the best of their ability. And remember they are human.

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      Bernard Babalola 4 years ago

      Affordable Care Act is yet to deal with this anomaly.

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      Anonymous 4 years ago

      My eighty nine year old Aunt was kept in the ER for 36 hours with heavy gastrointestinal bleeding.She was transported from a nursing facility... All this and then her primary shows up just to say she is being referred to a gastro. Forty eight hours later, they are doing a GRD and find she has three bleeding ulcers. Yes, some hospitalization required---and was admitted after forty eight hours.....Seriously???? Her husband was in same ER a few years ago, in the HALLWAY of ER for three days who died then with a broken clavicle...Sometimes I do have to wonder!!!

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      Burnt out 4 years ago

      The reason ED waits are so long is because there are too many patients and not enough resources. It's simples as that. And your high bills don't cover enough to pay for all the staff and resources needed to cover those that don't pay a dime as well.

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      RN 4 years ago

      Unnecessary heart monitor when her potassium levels were so low she had to be admitted, huh? I've had a pt with no history of heart issues who went into a lethal rhythm because his potassium was too low. We shocked him twice. Low potassium=heart monitor. Almost every time. And hospital bills are so high because people aren't paying to stay in the hospital so guess who gets to pick up the bill. bingo! You and me! We've had pts who lived in the hospital for over a year in the ICU with incurable diseases or they were brain dead but family didn't want to pull care. And the hospital often does not get a cent of those crazy high bills. We take care of a lot of illegal immigrants and many of those bills are not settled so then the rest of us pick it up

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      Sherry 4 years ago

      Some of this may be true but it's not always the case. I took my daughter to the ER after she had been throwing up for 72 hours straight. So "no" I didn't take her there on a whim. There were other individuals as sick as she was from the same "bug" I would assume. It was not overly busy and there were not people eating doritos and drinking soda and laughing, but it still took her hours to be seen. She was actually admitted overnight because her potassium levels were so low. On top of that, the doctor ordered an "un-necessary" heart monitor attached just to drive up a ridiculously high bill - over $8K for approximately 11 hours total. Despite the fact she needed to be seen, hospitals still are obscenely overcharging for their services. I received a bill for the ER (just to walk through the door), a radiology bill, a pharmacy bill, a bill for the hospital and a laboratory bill. So convince me the system isn't BROKEN.

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      Apollo 4 years ago

      One other type of patient that everyone seems to be overlooking is the drunk. The police can no longer take them to jail if they are intoxicated, they take them to the ER. Many times we have 3 or 4 of them and they are extremely demanding. Sometimes it takes several nurses to keep them in bed so they don't fall and hurt themselves or bother other patients. And they lay in our beds for hours until they are sober enough to be safe, or some family member is willing to take responsibility for them.

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      Heather 4 years ago

      What people don't understand is the ED uses a triage system. If you are here for a stubbed toe or earache you should expect to wait longer than chest pain or abdominal pain. It is not a first come, first serve place. And no, you cannot call ahead to reserve a room like you can a table at a restaurant. If you are in an ED, remember that most people who work there are as frustrated with wait times as you are. Extend a little grace and understanding. You never know what others are dealing with.

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      larry 4 years ago

      I do agree with your article, but that is definitely not the main reason. I have been to our local er and been the only person in the waiting room and still waited for hours.

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      CaroleAnne 4 years ago

      I went in to the ER late on a Friday night, bent over with abdominal pain. I waited about 20 minutes and was given a bed. After about 30 minutes a doctor came in and ordered tests and tylenol. My report of pain was 8/10. After blood and urine tests they did a scan and determined it was pancreatitis. They gave me more pain meds and IV and said I needed to wait for a bed. I waited all night on the hard exam bed for a bed on a ward. In this case, the lack of hospital beds is what make my ER stay long.

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      Mnpepperpot 4 years ago

      I presented heartburn and arm pain to the er staff. Immediately I was hooked up to monitors checking to see if I had or was having a heart attack. After seven hours of observation I had a treadmill test but the cardiologist on call said I could wait till morning for the cath lab. 20 minutes after being in my room I suffered a major heart attack in the widow maker artery. I had this as a 52 year old woman with no history of heart trouble.

      The nurses and doctors were awesome from the start. Er's should be places for immediate emergency care, not for ear infections. Increased use if urgent care facilities help reduce the er wait times.

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      AW 4 years ago

      I am an ER nurse as well....

      Everyone is frustrated with the ER situation.... we have been, and always will be. We can vent about it all day and tell the whole world the ridiculousness we encounter everyday, but I'm sorry.... it will never change. And trust me.... the people abusing the system are not spending their time reading blogs, nor do they even care if the person rushed into the ED before them was having a MI. So whatevs. I love working in the ED for those 2 or 3 patients per day who actually need me. They make the rest of the bs worth it.

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      Burned out 4 years ago

      Your nurse doesn't come in for hours because we are to busy getting pillows,blankets and cups of water. Not just for you the patient but for all your multiple visitors as well. Then there are the constant questions from not one family member but each subsequent person that comes to the bedside or calls on the phone. We can't medicate you when we are getting you a sandwich and chips. You've been puking all day but a turkey sandwich is going to make you're feel better. Oh then we have to update your Board in your room so you know when these ests will be resulted which never happens on time but that damn nurse is so stupid she doesn't know why I am puking. Stop eating fast food at the first sign of nausea. No common sense out there. One sneeze and people come running for the ER. Bonus let's do the family plan while sissy is with us let's check her out too! The government and medicine need to grow some balls and start turning people away,go see your doctor! Go to urgent care. There are a million of them around, they are cheaper and faster than any ER I guarantee! If you need an ER they will send you. Start taking better care of yourselves. Stop binge drinking, eating junk and restaurant food, smoking and sitting on your butts. Gee why don't I feel good? Take a walk, eat an apple for a change. Look in the mirror and take some responsibility for your health. It's not our job to heal you I one visit. No wands here people, visit harry potter if you want a magic healing!!!!

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      4 years ago

      You made a error in your essay: the nurse does not make you wait. The stupid fkers who go to the emergency room without a real emergency are making you wait (about 70%+ of the people). There's only so many doctors and they can only see one at a time no matter how faster they are. want to be seen without waiting so long? make an appointment with a family doc or go to an urgent care for your emergency sore throat or back pain.

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      wildlaurelrn 4 years ago

      To the person who asked why it takes so long to get through the non-serious cases to the serious ones...just because we know someone is full of crap doesn't mean we can treat them that way. We have to work them up just like the person who is ACTUALLY sick. You wait in line behind the person eating Cheetos with a 1 hour belly ache because they got there first and they're rating their pain 10/10 just like you. Pain is what the patient says it is. I disagree with the comments regarding the pain scale. If you present the question correctly - if 1 is no pain at all and 10 is the worst pain you've ever felt, please rate your current pain...then you ask them what their pain goal is - it is very effective. If they come in rating their pain 10/10 then you ask them to rate it after intervention and they say "it isn't better, 8/10." Then you can say, well, it was 10/10 when you got here - so it is some better...

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      megsamdh 4 years ago

      I agree with what sad, yet now we nurses are dealing with such judgmental behavior from the Physician, nurses and EMS ,who now think everyone is a drug addict that we don't treat the pt. who are truly In pain. So many people coming in ?illness to get Percocet or Vicodin, while the really sick pt. Seem to get treated with ibuprofen because being truly ill are at times to ill to ask for pain meds. We all has caregivers need to be less judgmental and treat pt. As Individual's. Plus the truly sick individual know what it cost to be in an Emergency Room and will have to pay. While my frequently flyers to the ER never pay and don't feel they have too,because the State will pick up the tab. At least that what the patient tells me. Classic question is do whatever test you need to do I don't have to pay I'm on Welfare.What more can I say about this screwed up medical system.

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      seeing red 4 years ago

      I am a registered nurse in a hospital. I could not work in an er setting. Half the people who come to an er should be taken out back and shot. That would fix our health care system real quick. Then those who need real care could and would be taken care of in a more prompt manner. The public should be thankful there are caring individuals who still put up with the abuse they take with a smile on their face and still care for you. Remember folks those working in an er have the medicine and know the doses that would keep you pain free and also permanently asleep


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      Denault 4 years ago

      you are explaining 'what' is making the wait so long...not 'why'.....you need to keep asking 'why'....for example; why does it take so long to treat the 'non-serious' cases and get to the serious cases....the fact is there is still a very long wait, no matter the legitimacy of the malaise of the patient....are we trying to decrease the amount of people in waiting rooms, or increase the effectiveness and speed at which they are treated. nothing new here....and this shows why....still not looking in the right direction or asking the right questions to lead to a solution. everyone still thinking "not my problem', 'I'm not the cause of this'...tat's as far as it gets...nothing gets solved. very typical.

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      Susie Q. 4 years ago

      Not only do they demand a free voucher for transport, the free meal and birth control, at the same time being verbally abusive. Um sorry, just because you called me a bee-otch.. Not going to encourage me to go out of my way for you.

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      Peter Lem 4 years ago

      You forgot to mention the part where they demand a voucher for public transport back "home" even as you know they're homeless. The sense of "entitlement" by the American public when it comes to Emergency Care is frightening.

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      Vicki 4 years ago

      Just had this experience in February. 6 1/2 HR both hands broke. Left with the Dr telling me they were fine. Not broke so three and a half weeks later after much pain I went to an ortho. Clinic and have been in a hard cast ever since..

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      Dan 4 years ago

      I laid in that ER bed today for 12 hours and still have not been told what is wrong with me. There is NO excuse for this! My head feels like a jackhammer being taken to it and the nurse says they are waiting on MRI results from HOURS ago before they can even give me an Advil. This country does need health care reform. This SUCKS!

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      red 5 years ago

      yea so when you have a love one just waiting in the waiting room for six hours and then die in the waiting room yall no what yall r doing. yea me to killing people.

    • Diana Heiman profile image

      Diana Heiman 5 years ago from Chicago, IL

      I too am an ER nurse, and find that patients just want to be informed. I give them the plan from the moment they walk into the ER in triage. I think it really helps, and we certainly have the patient satisfaction scores to prove it, however, most ER's do not work like the one I currently work in... At at many ER's, there is no time to stop in and smile and explain something while on your way to drop off the ever so important blood specimen that will tell you what blood to transfuse, or when you are running around trying to find a blood pressure cuff to fit your patient in septic shock.

      Either way, it is hard to explain to people that their problems are just simply not that important to warrant a check in every 20 minutes, and that someone else's problems probably are. That if you weren't checked up on, it's because your provider or nurse knew you weren't going to be dead if left alone for a few hours. They are skilled and trained to know these things!! That's why you come to them!

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      Karen 5 years ago

      I so agree some people like myself wait until it is the last resort Pain is unbearable or you are bleeding to death or feel like it. Then you get to er and there is a party going on. And you have to wait behind that party. You finally get some attention because there has to be severity levels. You get in a room and NO ONE checks on you for hours I could be dead and no one would know it until the one and only doctor on staff in this ER comes in. He then complains about being so busy. Really I don't care. I am here to get health care not to listen to you complain because you are busy. What is happening to America? Let's not go to ER and wait on Dr. next morning, then you get we are all booked up I have an opening in 5 weeks really... There is a problem here.

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      steve 6 years ago

      I understand a bit better but perhaps someone can answer this for me. my mom had constipation and could not go for a while i gave her an enema but it did not work and gave her stool softener and milk of magnesia but it also did not work i gave her the stool softener and the milk on one day and the enema on a different day when i gave her that it also did not work. i am no doctor but with her in pain i figure something was wrong. then we went to north shore hospital to the emergency room and i find that there is no one to talk to just a nurse behind a glass wall you can see and you just fill a complaint form on the table and just drop it in the slot and wait to be called.

      so i could not ask or direct my mom to just hope they see her.

      she was making noise of and crying begging for help and people just look at me and her... i had tear in my eye as well did not know what to do i tried to tell her go in the bathroom and just stay there because people was just making me upset with there stares and no one coming to help. after a bit of people hearing her form the bathroom and a person coming out of the door heard her then they let her in this was after i tried like a lot of times just to get some help.

      then when inside they just left her there until like 10 pm all i can do was just shed tears. the nurses that walk by i ask them what's taking so long you see my mom begging for help they just said the doctor is seeing others then when the doctor came to see her he said it take 2 hours to order stuff to help her out i like what took so long what if her stomach exploded or something i know that not what happens but he got my point all he said was sorry so how should i feel what if she died form this feel like i could sue because common

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      Kendra 7 years ago

      I can finally understand you nurses, but i will always be upset that they make you wait so long...

      I once broke my wrist and i had to wait hours in the ER waiting room. And when i got my name called i had to wait thirty minutes until the doctor finally came and helped me.

      But after reading this i think that if i get hurt again and i have to wait forever in the ER i will give my self alittle more patience, because you wrote this article.

      Thanks very much!

    • coryann profile image

      coryann 9 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Ahh yes...the infamous pain scale. I couldn't rate pain before I became a nurse, and still can't now. The powers that be decided that pain should be the 5th vital sign. But you are absolutely right...compared to what? Many people get frustrated with me about that one. Also "what does the pain feel like"? My favorite response is "it just hurts". It makes sense to me... Thank you for your comment.

    • ParadigmShift... profile image

      ParadigmShift... 9 years ago from San Jose, CA

      My favorite part of my wife's visit to the emergency room was when they asked her, "On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate your pain?" I mean c'mon! What do I compare it to? What if I have a high threshold for pain? (I do) I could do a whole comedy sketch on things i've seen and heard in emergency rooms...


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