The Waiting Game: ER Wait Times In Canada vs US

August 7, 2008

Average ER Waiting Time Nears 1 Hour:

The average time that hospital emergency rooms patients wait to see a doctor has grown from about 38 minutes to almost an hour over the past decade, according to new federal statistics released yesterday.

The increase is due to supply and demand, said Dr. Stephen Pitts, the lead author of the report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There are more people arriving at the ERs. And there are fewer ERs,” said Pitts, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Atlanta’s Emory University.

Overall, about 119 million visits were made to US emergency rooms in 2006, up from 90 million in 1996 – a 32 percent increase.

ER wait times in Ottawa, Canada’s capital district:

Got an urgent medical problem? If you visit an emergency room in western Quebec’s Outaouais region, prepare to wait an average of 20 hours and 42 minutes before being discharged or admitted to another ward in the hospital.

According to data compiled by the Le Comité de coordination national des urgences (CCNU), which works with emergency wards across the province, the average wait time in the Outaouais is four hours above the provincial average and two hours longer than last year. In addition, the data does not include the time spent waiting before seeing a doctor.

The data was published Wednesday in the GESCA newspaper chain, as part of its third annual rankings of Quebec hospitals.

The longest wait times in the region were at the Gatineau campus of the Gatineau hospital, where the average wait time was 25 hours.

Yesiree, just what we need- A Canadian style health care system.

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53 Responses to “The Waiting Game: ER Wait Times In Canada vs US”

  1. old whiteguy Says:

    in the great white socialist north, wait times depend a great deal on where you are. the bigger the centre the longer the wait. in an area like kingston ontario your wait time is more in line with the time stated in the u.s. study but that is also changing and that is unfortunate.

  2. Thomas Says:

    I don’t want to try to tell you that our system is great and wait times are short but Outaouais is not Ottawa and you are misleading your readers. While they receive federal funding, individual Canadian provinces are responsible for health care. The story refers to a region in Quebec, that happens to be also in the capitol region, however Ottawa is in Ontario. They are talking specifically about the Gatineau region in western Quebec and may well be referring to a rather small hospital. I live in Ontario. The last time I was in an emergency room (May this year)I saw a doctor in 20 minutes and was done within an hour. Wait times vary. I very much doubt anyone is waiting 25 hours in an Ottawa hospital unless it’s not much of an emergency.

  3. SC&A Says:

    Thomas- I specifically noted that I was referring to the capital region. Still, I concede that I should have been more clear. The region is question lies just over the river, in plain view of the capital.

    As for your wait time of 20 minutes, congratulations.

    You are far luckier than people in Toronto, Canada’s largest and most prosperous city and environs where wait times can easily exceed 12 hours.

    And we haven’t even begun to talk about wait times for tests and surgery or the ever increasing number of people whp cross the border for medical services.

  4. Dan Says:


    Those numbers aren’t even comparing the same thing:
    “The average time that hospital emergency rooms patients wait to see a doctor has grown from about 38 minutes to almost an hour”

    “average of 20 hours and 42 minutes before being discharged or admitted to another ward in the hospital.”

    also: “In addition, the data does not include the time spent waiting before seeing a doctor.”

    So the first info tells us that in the US you have to wait about an hour to see a doctor. The info for the Canadian system doesn’t tell us how long we have to wait to see a doctor…it only tells us how long the average patient spends in the ER AFTER seing a doctor. There doesn’t seem to be any point in putting these numbers side by side as if they were a comparison.

    • Arthur Says:

      Good show pointing this out. This piece is INTENTIONALLY misleading.

      • Rebecca Says:

        I was noticing the same thing!! You can not compare apples to oranges! The author of this article must be paid by the HMO’s!!

    • Barnum Bailey Says:

      To play the author’s game and pretend that we are comparing apples to apples, if the average person *actually* had to wait 20 hours to see a doctor they should not be anywhere near an emergency room…it would mean 90% of the people in the emergency room would be abusing the system…the ER is not for colds…it is for EMERGENCY medical problems …if you have a cold and want to waste medical resources go to the walk-in clinic

      if you go to the ER with a cold, the guy with a broken foot gets to see the doctor first, if someone is in cardiac arrest they get to see the doctor before the guy with a broken foot…the idea that someone who is *justifiably* in an ER would wait 20 hours is absolutely laughable

      • Barnum Bailey Says:

        it’s laughable because all kinds of people would be dropping dead in the streets and Canada would have a far higher mortality rate on account of the fact that people in need of ****EMERGENCY**** medical treatment would be dying due to not being able to access medical services

    • Joshua Scholar Says:

      What they’re comparing is
      a) how long before you even get to see a doctor in the US
      b) how long before they find a space in a ward for longer term care in the few cases that need that, in canada

      In the US if I bet a number of people who need that long term care are convinced to go away and not get it, because they don’t have money and the hospital doesn’t want to treat them for free – unlike Canada.

      But this kind of apples to Sherman Tanks comparison is the norm for right wing attempts as conning the American people out of the policies that work. I read articles that are based on deliberate fallacies like this one all the time from right wing sources.

    • Joshua Scholar Says:

      By the way, my step mother is a doctor who worked in Sask Canada, and SF California and Walla Walla Washington.

      I’ve been on both sides of emergency rooms with her, I suppose I should ask her what the wait times were.

      I doubt that an hour or two is unusual in ER anywhere, but they always triage for priority first. I went to an ER in a good neighborhood near San Jose – I was having neurological symptoms (I couldn’t see out one side of my eyes) from what they decided was a migraine. Even in an empty ER it took them an hour.

    • Joshua Scholar Says:

      Also my step mother doctor showed up in ER at a Kaiser hospital in San Francisco with a miscarriage.

      They put her in a room and LOST TRACK OF HER. My father had to run around the hospital and find a new doctor for her so she wouldn’t die on the table.

  5. [...] THE WAITING GAME: ER Wait Times In Canada vs US …. [...]

  6. Bill Says:

    Yes wait times here in the north are higher I don’t believe your stats but I will have to check. That said I have never heard of a Canadian going broke trying to pay his mediucal bills.

  7. F2XL Says:

    Thanks for posting! Glad to see a good comparison of waiting times at the emergency level, and not just with sustained cases.

  8. RC Says:

    So, how about we compare numbers to numbers. How long does the average person in Canada wait to *see* a doctor, not get discharged? According to another website, the average ER wait in Canada is shorter than it is in the US. Not only that, because so many Americans have no insurance, the ER is their first-stop for medical care. Whereas in Canada, people aren’t clogging the ERs in the same way.

  9. Greg Saville Says:

    Oh pleeese…what nonsense.
    I am a Canadian who has lived in the US for 10 yrs, Florida, Connecticut and now Seattle. You will always find someone trying to build their politics into an argument for the US health system. But let’s deal with reality. Here’s what I’ve really experienced in both countries.
    Canada’s health care system, in general, is so far superior to the US it is a national American shame. Wait times can say anything. I have not seen any difference in my experience. Medical quality is not much different either. I’ve had good and bad experiences on both sides.

    The big difference is this. I have to pay $12,000 for a pathetic medical insurance policy that entitles me to average services. I pay $1,000 in Canada based on my income for every medical service I can realistically imagine. In serious emergencies I’ll go to either country. For everything else, unless you are VERY rich in the US, the Canadian system is equal, fair, and offered to the entire country! How is it that the most powerful country in the world cannot match that after all these years???

  10. SC&A Says:

    That’s nice, Greg, but when all is said and done, waiting times in Canada are longer and the large and ever increasing numbers records of Canadians who cross into the US for treatment is well documented.

    Further, even the Supreme Court ruled that individuals have the right to immediate, outside medical treatment and for some strange reason, even politicians in Ontario have made clear their preference for private medical care.

    When Canadians referred to their medical coverage as the ‘North Korean modwl,’ you know that there is a problem. I suggest you read teh Frasier Institute’s analysis of Canada’s Health Care system.

    Lastly, I know about health care costs. You pay a lot more than $1000 a year for health care in Canada- the transfer payments from a tax crazed Ottawa make that clear.

    • Arlough Says:

      I am glad I found your post, because you reference exactly what I am looking for.
      I cannot find much beyond anecdotal evidence (and data from sources that have funding trails that make them useless in an argument) mentioning these Canadian who cross into the US for treatment.
      You mention that this is a well documented phenomenon, and my gut tells me that I should be able to find some data on it, but I can’t. Could you please post either links, or references to the data supporting this? Much appreciated.

    • Mike Says:

      Of course, you neglect to mention the increasing number of Americans who go abroad for medical care. Some even go to Canada, I’m told. Mostly for cost reasons, no doubt. By one estimate there were 1.5M Americans participating in “medical tourism” in 2009. Hard to pin the number down, though, since nobody is really keeping track.

  11. Justin Says:

    The United States pays 15.3% of its GDP on healthcare, while Canada spends 10%. To state that Canadians prefer the American model of healthcare is a misrepresentation at the very least. If you want to pay more for your healthcare because you believe in a free market system and don’t care if people cannot get care then I respect your opinion, but don’t put words in the mouths of an entire country which are in fact your own or misrepresent ER admission and discharge times as ER waiting room times to make yourself feel better.

  12. Han Says:

    There are those of you who say Canada’s health care system is superior but give no evidence as to why. Yes our health care is expensive but the U.S. is the cutting edge in innovation in heath care. Students from all over the world come to the U.S. to study medicine. Thousands of people come to the U.S. from other countries with single payer systems to get medical treatment. If Greg payed $12K per year and got average services then he needs to get another insurance provider. I was paying $9K a year and got PHENOMENAL coverage. 1 week for an MRI and 3 weeks for reconstructive shoulder surgery, no hassle. Even still, I would have saved money by paying for my surgery OUT OF POCKET for that surgery was the only time I used my insurance. Avid consumers of health care are the ones who complain the most.

    • bee Says:

      I have never paid for a mecial service in my life. I have had three major surgeries. I am a Canadian citizen. Beat that.

    • Ben Says:

      Then how come the US is ranked as one of the worst industrialized countries when it comes to health care? We are 38th (behind Cuba) in life expectancy. And don’t even tell me how many times a hear stories of a person in the US getting screwed by their health insurance provider. My Chinese sister will never be taller than 5 feet because my insurance stopped paying for her growth hormones, even with a doctors approval. They told us to sew them, this would take years and much more money than we are willing to pay for a lawyer. Another example is my girlfriends dad who now has to pay premium for his health insurance because he was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago and they would drop him if he did not. Just remember that private health insurance is not out their to help anyone, they are there to make a profit.

  13. Jason Says:

    You do know you are comparing “wait times in the US to see a doctor” to “total time of emergency room treatment in Canada” right? Being kept longer for additional observation and tests is not a bad thing.

  14. Ric Says:

    It’s about efficient use of resources–i.e. money, so follow the money. Let’s start with $100. A Canadian pays $100 in taxes that goes to the universal health care system. The system is non-profit, so $100 gets spent on delivering medical care for everybody.

    An American pays $100 to an insurance company. The insurance firms takes, 10% profit plus 10% more for admin fees, that leaves $80 to the health service provider. The health service provider is a for profit company, so take another 10% plus admin fees of 10%, at the end of the day, the real value of health care service available is now down to $64.

    That’s why to get the same $100 worth of health care a Canadian gets, an American needs to spend $156. So which is the more efficient way to spend health care dollars?

    • Dan Says:

      I once thought this way too, but I began working for the government and realized that whatever is lost to the “Profit Motive” is gained by the increase in effiency (in the private sector) and advances in research and development.

      The american system may be more expensive but that is because the leading edge is always more expensive then being just a follower. Almost all new drugs and the new treatments are done in the United States or for the United States market. Why? To make money. In canada or NHS the cost controls prevent new treatments from being implemented because the pay back is too long. Once a treatment is perfected in the United States it travels everywhere else.

      So in the end the Profit driven system that is so expensive for americans ends up saving the Canadian and the world for that matter a large amount of money.

      One other thing, don’t be nieve in thinking 100% of your tax money is spent effeciently. I would doubt that it approaches anything close to even 80%.

  15. Tom Says:

    Does it bother anyone reading this exchange or posting on it, that many of these arguments are at best, clichéd and at worst, false?

    First, why even make any argument at all if you are not going to list a source? All you have to do is type in exactly what you wrote to Google, and you will most likely find something legitimate on it by page 3. Even if you are right, there is no good reason anyone should listen to you without a real source (this includes myself, I am aware).

    Secondly, your anecdotes are worthless also. Again, it is not that they are wrong, it is that they are unhelpful to a conversation about public policy.

    Lastly, would the writer please respond to everyone’s question about the difference in the two pieces of data he mentioned (wait times to see a doctor vs. wait times before discharge)? I know this is just your personal blog, but I found it when trying to actually answer this question, and you dont’ even approach that. You are playing the same game that every public figure in office and on TV likes to play, and its called distortion.

    None of us are as smart as we think we are, that is what research is for.

  16. Mr. X Says:

    I am from Ottawa, across the river from Gatineau. I am actually a freind of the father of the head of the Gatineau Hospital. The Gatinau Hospital is notoriously bad for a number of reasons. The salaries are lower there than the hospitals in Ontario so many staff there are quick to work across the river the first chance they get, leaving lots of vacancies. Second, Gatineau’s population has skyrocketed in recent years and because of the cheap housing, daycare, and college/university along with the higher taxes, you have a poorer and more sickly population that across the river than Ottawa. Quebec has less healthcare funding than Ontario because it is not as wealthy of a province, though it’s quickly catching up. Quebec also has a higher percentage of seniors than Ontario thus more of a demand on healthcare.

    Gatineau is currently building a large brand new hospital to take the strain off the current one.

    It is very common to go to an Ottawa hospital, where wait times are only a fraction of what they are in Gatineau and Quebec public health insurance covers it, though rarely there are small nominal administrative fees, and see a parking lot fully of Quebec plates. Last time I went two years ago, I waited just one hour and I was low propriority. Just west of Ottawa, some of the small towns have hospital wait times that are even shorter.

    Univerisal Public Health Insurance is seen as a basic human right in Canada. A recent poll gave it 88% public support and only 12% of conservatives were against it. I hear now many developing countries are moving toward a universial system, like somewhere between achieving democracy and getting electricity and running water in every home, every society establishes universial health coverage. I find it amazing the US doesn’t have one.

    • Joey M Says:

      The “new” gatineau hospital is actually about a 25% extension onto the existing building which is not really going to help the “emergency services” department. I live 200 meters away from this hospital and my wait time has been as brief as 2 hours (twenty years ago) to now being “out waited” by the hospital and just leaving altogether. I know there are many who do this aswell.

      It really feels like torture to wait in these emergency rooms. Not only are you sore/tired/ or sick, but you have to wait for hours to get seen. There is nothig do to, tiny tv (no sound or subtitles) that plays french news all day, no magazines, no music, no nothing. You have no clue when you might be called and you wonder what the guy next to you might have or why this other guy keeps coughing on you? So hours go by and you wonder if you maybe missed your name on the speaker, or maybe they forgot about you altogether. You start these guessing games in your mind about whats going on. You might start counting the patients and grading their injuries/illnesses by your own extensive medical experience to see if they’ll get to go ahead of you because they’re more serious. You see some one get called in and you realize you’ve been waiting much longer then that other person and sit back wondering “wtf” is going on. It really is like being on the edge of your seat the whole time because no one tells you anything. The hospital staff nust have been coached to be as vague as possible. I guess qustions answered typically lead to more questions so they don’t say much of anything… and god for bid you should ask “how long?”.

  17. bs misinformation Says:

    How about using two sets of data that are related.
    Avg wait time to see a doctor in the US doesn’t fit with the avg wait time to get out of the ER in Canada.

    Gotta love misinformation!

  18. [...] average wait time for emergency room treatment in Quebec province is 16 hours [...]

  19. Trevor Says:

    Well the country will now have universal health care. Here in Massachusetts we have had it for 4 years and guess what. It is the most expensive in the country, not the cheapest. Keep thinking it is great once wait times for surgeries go up and wait times and treatment get worse because it is happening here in Mass.

    Good luck America, the government screwed you again.

    If this is so great why are our congressman and woman so afraid to enter into it?

  20. Reader22 Says:

    It always amazes me that Canadians (et al) actually believe their healthcare is free/cheap. Do you not factor in the total combined taxes that you pay as part of your healthcare costs?

    If I paid $6000 for my private health insurance but net taxes are $10,000 lower per year, aren’t I in fact paying less for health care?

  21. Pizza Games Says:

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  22. Bill D Says:

    I’d love to know where you derived your data from with regards to Canadian emergency room wait times. You are way off. If you are a “credible” writer, you should know to always cite your work and supply references to your data. Funny that you did not and even funnier how easy many within this posting are buying into data that has no resource.

    • SC&A Says:

      As noted in the links provided, the information was gleaned from credible sources, including the CBC.

      It is funny how you didn’t bother to note the links provided. It is even funnier that you set yourself up as a credible critic.,

      • Bill Dickel Says:

        My information comes from the World Health Organization. CBS is not a credible news source anymore than FOX news. WHO. Check it out if you want real and factual world statistics that are unbiased and have no agenda. I would provide a link but it’s easy enough to find using your browser.

      • Bill Dickel Says:

        On another note, I didn’t realize that this forum’s instruction was “scholarly” writing only, which is the proper word to use when instructing someone to cite their sources, not “credible.”

  23. RN-123 Says:

    As a registered nurse (RN) with experience on both sides of the border, I can assure you that American hospitals are by far more efficient. It was not unusual to see ER wait times in excess of 24 hours in an Ontario tertiary care hospital. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, wait time targets were measured in minutes.

    Problem with Canadian system is that it has created a monopoly with no incentive for providers to drive satisfaction. Moreover, with “free” healthcare idiot public uses the ER as a family doctor.

    • Bill Dickel Says:

      I guess your title should read Canadian ER wait times versus Dallas Region because wait times in NY area hospitals FAR exceed one hour. In fact, most patients who don’t have benefits, which is many, use the ER as their family doctor as well. Last I looked, healthcare wasn’t “free” in NY. Statics are free to look up on the World Health Organization and it is clear that Canada beats our healthcare in overall customer satisfaction by far.

      • Joshua Scholar Says:

        Each province in Canada has a separate system.

        Some are better run than others.

        Some are much better funded than others.

        It’s been decades since I lived in Canada, but when I was there, for instance, British Columbia was known to have the most underfunded system, with constant strikes.

        My step mother worked in Sask. which was fairly good. But next door in Alberta, they had money from taxing oil fields, so they had twice as much money for medical services than Saskatchewan did.

  24. Bruce Says:

    It is also clear that “Sigmund Carl and Alfred” is a doofus.

  25. Bruce Says:

    “And a very thoughtful and intelligent!” Classic!

  26. SC&A Says:

    Very deep critique.

  27. canuckistani2008 Says:

    Wait times are the ONLY meaningful category where the US beats Canada, or any other nation with a public health-insurance system, which is why the defenders of the gruesome circus of brutality, bureaucracy & neglect that is the American “healthcare” system have to keep bringing it up … it’s literally their one & only cogent positive selling-point.

    Yes, Canada surely must envy the US its lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality & superiority in lost work days – not to mention the magic & wonder of a random illness or injury (even a relatively minor one) suddenly leading to years of economic deprivation, if not outright bankruptcy. Somewhere around half of foreclosures are directly caused by exorbitant medical expenses in the US – those poor dumb Canucks must be SEETHING with jealousy, missing out on all that delicious needless shame, stress & misery!

    Paying more for less = FREEDOM (from your money … & maybe your life)!!!!!

    No doubt this wonderful menu of delights explains why so many countries around the world are so eager to enact an American-style system … oh, wait.

  28. Jerry Says:

    Talk about extreme bias reporting, using unequal data! Your report was based on NATIONAL AVERAGE for the US, and average for what is known as Canada’s worst region for Canada!
    This is not a real comparison. How outrageous to feign it is.

  29. “The Waiting Game: ER Wait Times In Canada vs US Sigmund, Carl and Alfred” was indeed actually entertaining and informative!
    In modern society honestly, that is difficult to carry out.
    With thanks, Bobby

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