Best Emergency Room

Sibley Memorial Hospital
5255 Loughboro Rd. NW
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

One of the customary rules of triage is to get the patient to the nearest available medical facility, so people with broken limbs or worse can’t always be choosers. But if you take a spill from your bike or singe your hand on the stove, you maintain some control over where you’ll be treated. Don’t head to any of the big hospitals downtown.

Tucked away in the Palisades, Sibley Memorial Hospital doesn’t share the Metro accessibility of George Washington University Hospital or Howard University Hospital, nor the size of Washington Hospital Center or Georgetown University Hospital, but what it lacks in geographic convenience it makes up for in actual convenience.

Consider this writer’s visit to GW last year after a nasty bicycle spill. About an hour passed between walking in the emergency admitting area, about 6 p.m., and the first interview with a triage nurse. From there, it was about another two hours before the first visit with a fresh-faced intern. Tack on that much again before a repeat appearance, plus a minute-long cameo by the attending physician. The CT scan, confirming a concussion, didn’t start until after midnight.

Past visitors to Sibley’s emergency room, however, report much speedier service. The hospital’s website boasts that patients are seen by a medical professional within 30 minutes. It’s difficult to tell how consistently that guarantee is fulfilled, but former patients say most visits can be wrapped up within a few hours, unlike the all-night affairs at other hospitals.

Attentiveness to the patient and the patient’s loved ones goes a long way, too. One recent visitor says she elected to take her father, who was suffering from cardiopulmonary failure, to Sibley rather than the much closer Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. An emergency room attendant helped her father in the door and speeded him to the nearest bed where, she tells me, he received “excellent, lifesaving care.” She also recalls a dose of empathy from the administrative staffer responsible for collecting insurance information. While going through the bureaucratic tedium, the clerk let her return to her father’s bedside as he lay on the brink of death rather than making her finish filling out forms.

Another former patient writes that after coming in for a fainting spell, the staff offered her heated blankets to make a chilly examination room less uncomfortable.

Sibley employs some commonplace emergency medicine to help speed patients through—bedside registration and fast-tracking minor injuries—and its upper Northwest location means it has less walk-in traffic. But its real advantage is that unlike D.C.’s other hospitals, Sibely is not swarming with medical students and novice doctors. Although its 2010 absorption by the Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System made it a nominal teaching hospital, Sibley has only a handful of interns and residents, compared to the hundreds at GW, Georgetown, and Washington Hospital Center.

The bigger hospitals are still better equipped to handle major traumas, especially for patients brought in from crime scenes. And Sibley patients pay higher bills on average for cuts and sprains. But when hospitals—especially teaching hospitals—are seeing more and more people use emergency rooms for primary care, it might be worth spending a few extra bucks in order to get home sooner.