How long could you wait in a Houston-area emergency room?

Local 2 Investigates goes undercover to reveal long waits across Houston

HOUSTON – A Local 2 hidden-camera investigation shows the problem of long patient times at some Houston-area hospital emergency rooms continues. However, times varied greatly from hospital to hospital.

"How long is the wait?" asked a producer for Local 2 Investigates upon entering Harris County's LBJ Hospital on the northeast side.

"It's ten hours," says the employee handling the emergency room check-in desk.

Welcome to today's ER.

In metropolitan Houston, an area with almost six million people and 65 hospitals, the wait times can be huge.

For Joshua Ybarra, whose 2-year-son went into a scary, coughing fit one night, the wait time at the emergency department at Texas Children's Hospital in the Medical Center was 10 hours. Ten miserable hours for little Alex.

"He was crying, he was tired, he was vomiting," says Ybarra. "I wasn't expecting 10 hours."

So how bad is it?  Local 2 Investigates spent one night visiting eight different hospital emergency rooms spread out all over the Houston area. Hidden cameras offered a snapshot of what emergency room wait times are like on a typical Wednesday night between 10 p.m. and midnight.

Those long waits included that 10-hour wait at LBJ Hospital. However, when Local 2 Investigates went into the emergency room at Ben Taub General Hospital, the wait was even longer. Nurses there told patients the wait would be 14 hours. There were more than 100 other people packed in the waiting room.

Our one-night tour of Houston's hospital emergency rooms took us to all sides of Houston:

At Texas Children's Hospital in the Texas Medical Center, the wait time was four and a half hours.

At Memorial Hermann Texas Medical Center, the wait was also four and a half hours.

At Memorial Hermann Memorial City, it was two hours.

At Memorial Hermann Northwest, patients waited one hour and 50 minutes.

At Memorial Hermann Southwest, the wait was one hour.

At East Houston Regional Hospital, the wait was only 10 minutes.

"We see everything in the emergency department," said Dr. Diana Fite, a 30-year veteran emergency room physician in Houston.

Local 2 Investigates followed Fite as she worked inside the emergency department at Houston Methodist Willowbrook Hospital. There was no waiting for patients at the ER that night, but Fite said the wait times Local 2 Investigates found across Houston do not surprise her.

"The county facilities are going to tend to have the longest waiting times, and the small community hospitals will have the shortest wait times," Dr. Fite said. "The busiest days tend to be Mondays and Sundays. The busiest nights tend to be weekend nights: Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The nights and days with less waiting time tend to be your Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday."

Local 2 Investigates also asked Dr. Fite about those new, free-standing emergency rooms that seem to be popping-up everywhere. Dr. Fite, who currently works in both hospitals and free-standing facilities, said you should expect to pay the same high prices you'll pay at a traditional hospital emergency room, but wait times can be quicker.

"If a problem is indeed not too serious, you'll certainly get in faster in a free-standing emergency department as a general rule," she said.

Local 2 Investigates talked with several hospital systems about emergency room wait times.

Here's the response from John Ambler, Chief Communication, Public & Government Affairs Officer for the Memorial Hermann Health System:

"Memorial Hermann - Texas Medical Center is the busiest Level 1 trauma center in the country. Due to the severity of the trauma patients served, the non-trauma ER patients will have a longer wait than in community hospitals that do not operate Level 1 trauma. The longer wait times are an unfortunate reflection of a city with too little ER capacity for the population, inadequate insurance and Medicaid coverage to compensate hospitals for the care they provide, and a large uninsured population that often uses emergency care for their primary care needs. At present the County hospitals and Memorial Hermann provide the overwhelming majority of this uncompensated care. If we want to improve the situation we need to expand the County's ER capacity dramatically rather than shrink it, and get other charitable hospitals to join Memorial Hermann in providing meaningful levels of emergency care.

The majority of ER visits are not true emergencies, but rather conditions that could be handled in a physician's office. The ever increasing ER growth is a reflection of our community's inadequate access to primary care. Houston has one of the largest uninsured populations in the country and this group uses the ERs for their primary care needs. This problem will not get better, as Texas was one of the states that refused to expand Medicaid access."

Texas Children's Hospital also responded to our story:

"At Texas Children's Hospital our number one priority is the health, care and safety of our patients. Because it is critical for Emergency Department (ED) staff to treat the sickest most emergent patients first, it is not uncommon for patients presenting with non-emergent complaints to wait hours before they see a doctor. Texas Children's Hospital has been very proactive in our response to these trends by expanding access and improving upon our services in primary, lower acuity and emergency care.

What we've done in our ED:
For those children who do have medical emergencies, we are looking at every possible option and have taken a number of steps to help alleviate the amount of time families wait to receive care. Texas Children's Hospital West Campus is nearly doubling the size of the ED. The new, expanded area will open soon. The EDs at both of our campuses have developed a surge plan designed to mobilize any available resources when we see an extremely high patient volume.

What we're doing system-wide:
We have the largest primary pediatric care network in the country, Texas Children's Pediatrics, dedicated to providing care to children. This helps ensure that children have a medical home to access the preventative care they need and a place to turn to as opposed to the ER. In fact, some of these practices even offer extended hours for current patients. As part of our commitment to families we have five Texas Children's Pediatrics Community Cares practices around the Houston area strategically located in medically underserved areas to allow for greater access for families.

We also recently opened The Center for Women and Children to provide a convenient primary care physician practice medical home for Texas Children's Health Plan members in the Greenspoint area. The facility is designed to address the shortage of primary care medical needs for the Medicaid and CHIP (Children's Health Insurance Program) populations.

We've also been investigating other options system-wide to provide lower acuity patients the care they need in their community.

Educating families:
This news story is another great opportunity to educate our community about the role they can play to better preserve the precious but limited emergency resources that are available in our region.  Hospitals, insurers and governmental agencies must of course continue to do their part by improving access and the quality of care delivered to patients.  Families can also help in this effort by being more attentive to the role they have in the prevention of their child's illness (e.g. flu vaccines) and injury (e.g. helmets and seat belts). Parents can also partner with their primary care physicians when making decisions about when and where it is most appropriate to seek primary, lower acuity or emergency care for their child's illness or injury. Texas Children's is dedicated to creating a community of healthy children and families should know that we will always be here when they need us."

About the Author:

Emmy-winning investigative reporter, insanely competitive tennis player, skier, weightlifter, crazy rock & roll drummer (John Bonham is my hero). Husband to Veronica and loving cat father to Bella and Meemo.