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Darla Moore School of Business

Moore School economics professor discovers ER wait times affect mortality rates and health care costs

May 29, 2017

Have you ever sat in an emergency room and wondered if you might die waiting? You’re not far off. In her research on health care, Darla Moore School of Business economics professor Lindsey Woodworth has found that overcrowded ER waiting rooms and long wait times actually affect the likelihood of individual patients dying.

Through her research on emergency departments, Woodworth came to realize that any time there is a problem in the health care system at large, emergency departments are usually the first to be affected because when people can’t access regular doctors, they go to the ER instead. Lots of people overwhelm emergency rooms, leading to longer wait times.

Once Woodworth recognized this, she began to question the effects of those long wait times beyond merely inconveniencing the people involved. In her most recent research, using all emergency department records across Florida for five years as well as UC Davis’ emergency department records, she determined that as patients’ ER wait times lengthen, costs typically increase. This is because patients get sicker the longer they wait, forcing doctors to have to administer more care.

More than that, by considering the effects of wait time, Woodworth found that arriving at an ER when it is crowded could make a patient more likely to die. And, unfortunately, many of the patients who comprise the large crowds don’t technically need to be going to the ER in the first place — they’re there because they are using the ER in place of a regular doctor visit.

Woodworth is hopeful that her research will change administrators’ attitudes toward dealing with emergency department efficiency, which is often neglected because emergency rooms don’t generate as much revenue as the rest of the hospital.

“This research demonstrates that turning a blind eye to the emergency room actually harms patients and creates inefficiency in the hospital,” she says.

Woodworth has been studying emergency room efficiency since graduate school when the medical center at the University of Florida needed an economics student to work there. Because of that opportunity, she got a unique glimpse into the inner workings of emergency departments and brought a different perspective because of her economics background.

“People tend to do research in their own disciplines, but I think reaching across the aisle makes people think about things from a different angle,” she says.

Her initial research into emergency rooms is published in Journal of Regulatory Economics. She is continuing to examine the effect of ER wait time on the cost of patient care and the effect of ER crowding on patient health as well as looking at the effect of Medicaid expansion on ER utilization.

By Madeleine Vath

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