U.S. emergency department (ED) visits reached a record high of nearly 114 million in 2003, while the number of EDs continued to decrease to 3,910, according to a report released last Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

From 1993 through 2003, the number of ED visits increased 26 percent. The U.S. population rose 12.3 percent during this period, and the 65-and-over population rose 9.6 percent.

The average waiting time to see a physician was 46.5 minutes, the same as it was in 2000. The wait time was unchanged despite increased visits. EDs have implemented a number of efficiencies, including “fast track” units, which may have kept the wait time constant. On average, patients spent 3.2 hours in the ED, which includes time with the physician as well as other clinical services.

Caroline Steinberg, AHA vice president for health trends analysis, said, "This report confirms what we have been hearing -- hospitals face rising demand and constrained capacity -- and nowhere is this more apparent than in our nation's emergency departments."

The AHA and the American College of Emergency Physicians released a study in 2002, in which more than 90% of large hospitals reported that their EDs were at or over capacity.

Press release here, you can read or download the full report here (pdf file).