For many people, seeking emergency care typically involves waiting in a crowded room before being treated. Wait times for emergency services generally average from 24 to nearly 50 minutes nationally, depending on the department’s size.
But in the COVID-19 era, social distancing precautions mean not asking patients to wait in a packed emergency department.
As a result, health systems across the country are taking on the challenge of redesigning their EDs as well as rethinking their operations to keep patients safe. And rather than completely gutting and rebuilding, which is costly, most providers are thinking creatively to rework their existing spaces to reduce crowding of patients and family members.
Health systems “are really thinking clearly about their EDs—the entrances, the access (and) COVID-19 waiting,” said Catherine Gow, principal of health facilities planning at Francis Cauffman Architects.
Common practices include spacing chairs in waiting areas at least 6 feet apart and restricting visitors to avoid crowding, both of which have been deployed at University Hospitals based in Cleveland.
“You don’t want people to walk through the door, see a crowded ED, and walk out. That is the worst-case scenario,” said Dr. Jessica Goldstein, medical director of the system’s emergency medicine quality network.
Throughout the pandemic, it’s been easy for University Hospitals to maintain sparsely populated waiting areas due to low volumes, but patients are starting to return to the EDs. The volumes across the system’s 12 EDs are at 80% of pre-COVID-19 levels—slightly higher than trends nationally with hospitals reporting ED volumes are at 75% of pre-COVID levels. Research shows ED volumes have been slower to rebound compared with outpatient and inpatient volumes.