Four common causes of Emergency Department wait times

AHEAD of the busy holiday season, Fraser Health is sharing four common reasons why wait times occur, along with measures a person can take to get the care they need, when they need it and avoid unnecessary visits to the emergency department.

“If a person understands how an emergency department functions, they can make an informed decision about whether it’s appropriate to go to the hospital or have a non-life threatening health care concern treated by their family physician or at a walk-in clinic,” says Dr. Neil Barclay, Fraser Health’s regional medical director for emergency medicine. “Up to 20 per cent of visits to the emergency department can be avoided, which is why we encourage people to get the flu shot and take other preventative measures to protect their health.”

Four common reasons why a person with a non-life threatening health concern may experience a lengthy wait in the emergency department:

1)  Other patients require more urgent care: Unlike a walk-in clinic, the emergency department does not operate on a first-come, first-served basis. The triage process (meaning ‘to sort’) determines which patients need the most urgent care, and prioritizes accordingly.

2)  You need additional tests or lab work: If your health care concern requires waiting for additional test results, like blood work, an ultrasound, or CT scan, this can result in a longer visit and lengthier wait times in the emergency department.

3)  The unexpected has occurred: Unforeseen circumstances, such as a natural disaster or a major car accident can result in a sudden influx of patients who need urgent care. This leads to longer wait times in the emergency department for those waiting with less urgent health care needs.

4)  You come at a busy time. Sometimes it’s busy, particularly during the holiday season when visits to the emergency department can increase by as much as seven per cent.

Here are a few of Dr. Barclay’s tips for a safer, healthier, merrier holiday season that can help keep you out of the emergency department:

  1. For any health concern, call your family doctor or nurse practitioner first. Your family doctor knows you and your medical history. In some cases, same-day urgent appointments may be available if you ask.
  2. If your family doctor is not available, check for participating walk-in clinics, wait times and opening hours. is in most communities in Fraser Health. Remember to ask that a copy of the visit be sent to your family doctor.
  3. For trusted health advice call 8-1-1 (HealthLinkBC) which is available 24 hours/day, 7 days/week. Speak with a representative who will help you find health-related information and services, or connect you with a nurse for health advice, a dietitian for nutrition information or a pharmacist for medication advice.
  4. For an urgent medication refill speak with your pharmacist. Remember, since doctors’ offices may close during the holidays, and walk-in clinics and pharmacies may have shortened holiday hours, it is important to fill your prescriptions ahead of time. If necessary, your pharmacist may be able to provide an emergency refill of your prescription, including medications for chronic conditions. Contact your pharmacist for minor issues that might be managed with over-the-counter medications. You should also stock your medicine cabinet with over-the-counter pain relievers, cold medications and antacids to relieve symptoms of minor illnesses.
  5. For a mental health concern call the Fraser Health Crisis Line, 24/7 at 1-877-820-7444.
  6. For a child/youth mental health crisis call Fraser Health’s START program at 1-844-782-7811.
  7. For a possible poisoning or exposure to a toxic substance, call Poison Control at 1-800-567-8911.
  8. For an urgent dental concern such as a traumatic injury to the mouth or jaw, severe pain that can’t be controlled with over-the-counter medications, swelling or ongoing bleeding and look under Dental Emergency for more information.

For critical or life-threatening conditions, such as chest pain, shortness of breath, serious bleeding or broken bones, call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest hospital emergency department.