Regulation

Queue Up

Health care rationing

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Facing lengthening waits at hospitals, the British government has set a targeted turnaround time of four hours from arrival in an emergency room to treatment by a medical professional. Apparently this standard has proven too stringent for the National Health Service.

The Guardian reports that U.K. emergency rooms are meeting the four-hour goal through a simple, quintessentially British expedient: queuing. Thousands of seriously ill patients have been forced to wait outside of emergency departments in ambulances before they can be admitted, thus delaying the start of the four-hour timer. The practice is called "patient stacking," and various investigations have found people with broken limbs or breathing problems stuck in ambulances for as long as five hours.

In U.S. emergency rooms, the average length of time it takes a patient to see a doctor has increased from 22 minutes to 30 minutes during the last decade. In nonurban hospitals, the wait averages just 15 minutes. And there's no extra waiting in the ambulances outside.