STAT

Opinion: When waiting feels immoral: Fairness in the emergency department calls for empathy from all of us

A waiting room in an emergency department is a first-order oxymoron. But it's a reality that must be treated with empathy by and for all.

Mr. Kane is using one hand to clutch the plastic basin into which he is vomiting and gesturing hello with the other hand when I introduce myself to him in the emergency department triage area.

He has suffered from headaches ever since he had surgery for a brain mass years before. Over-the-counter medications typically control the pain. But today it feels like a hot knife behind his eyes, and he had little choice but to come to the hospital. I examine him, start treatment, and tag him for an urgent bed in the main emergency department.

Only there aren’t any beds immediately available. He’ll be sent back into the waiting room in the company of the many other waiting patients, some possibly sicker than he is.

The is firmly grounded in social justice and providing access to expert care to everyone who comes in., with any condition, at any time. And yet, embedded into emergency department operations is a system that might be perceived as unjust: . The emergency queue isn’t “first come, first served.” It’s nonlinear by design, since triage prioritizes the severity of illness. The severely ill or injured receive immediate attention. Everyone else, to various degrees, must wait.

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