07/27/2010 05:08 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

California Emergency Room Waits Average 274 Minutes

This story comes courtesy of California Watch.

By Joanna Lin

Patients visiting California emergency departments waited an average of four hours, 34 minutes last year. That's two minutes longer than they waited in 2008 and 27 minutes longer than the national average.

The figures are part of a recent analysis of time spent in emergency departments by health care consulting firm Press Ganey. Wait times were based on calculations of more than 1.5 million patients treated at 1,893 hospitals in 2009. Overall, wait times increased an average of four minutes last year.

California ranks 40th in the U.S. for wait times, trailing Iowa, the state with the shortest waits, by 99 minutes. In Utah - where the report says low rates of insured patients, staffed inpatient beds and registered nurses could have contributed to the 89-minute jump in wait time last year - people spent an average of eight hours, 17 minutes in the emergency department.

Studies point to a variety of challenges in emergency care, including a shortage of medical facilities.

California has 7.1 emergency departments per 1 million people, compared to an average of 19.9 among other states, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians' 2009 National Report Card on the State of Emergency Medicine. More than 10 million people visited California emergency departments in 2007.

Many emergency department visits could be avoided with improved access to primary care providers and urgent care centers, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. In a 2008 report, the institute found the three counties with the highest rates of emergency department visits were in the Central Valley, where there were higher rates of avoidable visits and a lower physician supply.

But reducing emergency department overcrowding will take more than access to primary care, Rand Corp. researcher Dr. Arthur L. Kellermann told The Associated Press. It will also require that hospitals run more efficiently, and move patients through the system and ready them for admission more quickly, he said.

Two Southern California hospitals - Loma Linda University Medical Center and San Antonio Community Hospital in Upland - are trying to cut down on waits by allowing patients with noncritical conditions to schedule emergency room visits online. But efficiency comes at a price: The hospitals guarantee patients will see a health professional within 15 minutes of their appointment - for $24.99.