Objective — To determine whether patients who are not admitted to hospital after attending an emergency department during shifts with long waiting times are at risk for adverse events.
Design — Population based retrospective cohort study using health administrative databases.
Setting — High-volume emergency departments in Ontario, Canada, fiscal years 2003–2007.
Participants — All emergency department patients who were not admitted (seen and discharged; left without being seen).
Outcome measures — Risk of adverse events (admission to hospital or death within seven days) adjusted for important characteristics of patients, shift, and hospital.
Results — 13,934,542 patients were seen and discharged and 617,011 left without being seen. The risk of adverse events increased with the mean length of stay of similar patients in the same shift in the emergency department. For mean length of stay ≥6 vs. <1 hour, the adjusted odds ratio (95% confidence interval) was 1.79 (1.24 to 2.59) for death and 1.95 (1.79 to 2.13) for admission in high acuity patients, and 1.71 (1.25 to 2.35) for death and 1.66 (1.56 to 1.76) for admission in low acuity patients. Leaving without being seen was not associated with an increase in adverse events at the level of the patient or by annual rates of the hospital.
Conclusions — Presenting to an emergency department during shifts with longer waiting times, reflected in longer mean length of stay, is associated with a greater risk in the short term of death and admission to hospital in patients who are well enough to leave the department. Patients who leave without being seen are not at higher risk of short term adverse events.