Metro Atlanta's fastest Emergency Rooms: Is 3-minute wait for real?

Could it be true? An emergency room in Atlanta where the average wait to be seen is just three minutes?

That's what Eastside Medical Center in Snellville is reporting, according to federal statistics reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Eastside, Cartersville Medical Center and Redmond Regional in Rome have the shortest initial ER waits among North Georgia emergency rooms, the AJC found. These three hospitals are all owned by Nashville-based Hospital Corporation of America and all three report average waits of eight minutes or less to see a "medical professional."

Eastside Medical Center in Snellville

But that initial, short wait does not always indicate that your overall ER visit will be speedy, the AJC found.

The AJC analyzed seven statistics that track speed and effectiveness in emergency rooms. You can check out how Atlanta area hospitals rank on the new ER section of the AJC Hospital Checkup website. Click here to see the ER data.

The AJC found that it's important to look beyond the initial wait time. While Eastside Medical Center in Snellville posted the shortest initial wait at 3 minutes, its overall time spent in the ER for people who aren't admitted to the hospital was relatively slow at 187 minutes. That's longer than the state average of 146 minutes.

Eastside also has one of the longest waits in the Atlanta region -- 412 minutes -- for the total time spent in the ER for someone who is eventually admitted to the hospital. Yes, that's that's nearly 7 hours of ER time.

So, people who live in Gwinnett County should know: Eastside may get you in to the ER faster, but Gwinnett Medical Center may get you out faster, the numbers show.

Gwinnett Medical Center in Lawrenceville

Statewide, emergency room patients wait about 30 minutes, on average, to see a medical professional. So are average waits of 10 minutes or less for real?

Cartersville Medical Center, where the initial wait is just 5 minutes, explained to the AJC how it and other Hospital Corporation of America hospitals in Georgia achieve such short initial waits.

"We have a front-end process," said Heather Clement, the ER Director at Cartersville. "When a patient signs in, a nurse practitioner will see the patient."

The nurse practitioner will ask why the patient came to the ER, do an initial assessment, and listen to a patient's heart and lungs. Based on that assessment the nurse practitioner can get the patient's care started -- often ordering tests immediately that can speed up the whole visit, Clement said.

The AJC found that Cartersville's ER times stayed relatively speedy in most of the categories. It was second-fastest, for example, on one key measure for pain relief, with an average wait of 42 minutes for pain medication for patients with broken bones. That's less than the state average of 60 minutes and far shorter than the waits reported for some other hospitals.

At Southern Regional Medical Center, for example, patients with broken bones waited more than two hours for pain meds. At the Piedmont Henry Hospital ER, the average wait for pain meds was 95 minutes for those with a broken bone, according to the numbers.

Most people expect long waits at Grady Memorial Hospital and the numbers suggest that's a realistic expectation: Grady's initial wait to see a medical professional was 110 minutes. on average. The total time spent in the ER for patients who aren't admitted is the longest in the Atlanta area at 418 minutes.

The safety net hospital in Atlanta is hardly the only hospital that will try a visitor's patience.

At Southern Regional Medical Center, the average wait to see a medical professional was 129 minutes. At Emory University Hospital, the total time spent in the ER for people who weren't admitted was 286 minutes. The Georgia average is 146 minutes.

Dr. Carlton Buchanan, medical director of Gwinnett Medical Center’s Emergency Services, oversees one of the state's super-busy ERs. He said high-volume hospitals across the country, including Gwinnett Medical, often face slow-downs when beds aren't available in the main hospital to handle patients who need to be admitted to the ER.

"When you have beds that are occupied by patients who can't get upstairs, you are losing part of your capacity," Buchanan said.

While some hospitals use a "medical professional" at check in to do a quick assessment that makes initial waits looks extremely short, Buchanan said his hospital uses a standard system that better accounts for when patients really start getting treatment.

He said it's important to shorten the initial wait, he said adding: "We have got to be working to lower it the right way."

The numbers do not reflect improvements a hospital may have made since the statistics were gathered. The information here was released by the government in December, but the statistics cover a year of patient visits that ended March 31, 2015. That's the most recent data available.

The AJC Hospital Checkup website contains much more than the ER information. It also contains hospital-by-hospital data on infections, hip and knee replacements and labor and delivery services. Click here to see all those ratings. 

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Read an in-depth AJC story on Emergency Room care.

About the Author

Carrie Teegardin
Carrie Teegardin
Carrie Teegardin is on the investigative team. She is a graduate of Duke University and has won numerous national journalism awards.