ED Wait Times Touted Online, But Docs Point to a Dangerous Trend

Cheryl Clark, for HealthLeaders Media , December 22, 2009

There were no patients waiting for emergency care at Oregon's Sacred Heart Medical Center RiverBend in Springfield yesterday around 6 p.m., but there were five in line at its sister hospital, University District in nearby Eugene.

Patients could assess their chances of being seen quickly at either ED simply by going to Sacred Heart's Web site. ED wait times are updated every five minutes through infrared badges pinned to patients in line, electronically tracking their flow.

Advertising your hospital's ED wait times and the number of patients in line is an emerging marketing strategy around the country as facilities search for ways to grab market share from their competitors and make sure their patients have the best possible experience.

Last year, Joy Cresci, Sacred Heart's emergency trauma assistant administrator, recalls that the system endured "a lot more volume in our emergency department than we anticipated by a significant amount," creating perception problems in the community "We were having long patient waits in the lobby; patients were unhappy."

For Sacred Heart, the posting is an effort to appease patients and ramp up competition against McKenzie Willamette Medical Center, which is a competing hospital, Cresci says.

But officials for the American College of Emergency Physicians are not so sure the idea is medically sound.

"I would say this is a gimmick more than anything else," says Sandra Schneider, MD, ACEP president-elect, and an emergency physician at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, NY.

"I like the idea that some EDs are out there trying to be better, but at the same time I worry people might delay coming in to be seen. Sometimes a fairly minor symptom, like jaw pain or a bit of chest discomfort, can actually be a serious sign or condition that we need to jump on right away.

"And with this system, my concern is that people will wait in line at home rather than wait in line in an ED where a trained nurse has screened them," Schneider says.

Another facility posting ED wait times is Methodist Stone Oak Hospital in San Antonio, where the wait around 6 p.m. was only five minutes. And at Scottsdale Healthcare facilities in Arizona, a viewer could expect to wait 142 minutes for care at the Osborn emergency facility, but no waits at Thompson Peak ER, the Shea Main ER or the Shea Kids ER.

Still a variation on the theme of posting your hospital's ED wait times is a strategy that allows patients to buy, for $24.99, the ability to register online for a place at the head of the emergency room wait line at participating hospitals. The concept, called InQuickER—"Skip the ER Waiting Room"—was developed three years ago as a customer service program.

The patient prints out a confirmation number with instructions for what time to be at the hospital so they don't have to wait.

So far, three hospitals have signed up: Emory-Adventist Hospital in Smyrna, GA, Florida Hospital Waterman in Tavares, FL, and Infirmary West in Mobile, AL.

"We have a disclaimer. I am not experiencing a life-threatening emergency," says InQuickER CEO Tyler Kiley. Also, a charge nurse evaluates the nature of the symptoms or complaints the patient lists on the online registration form, to make sure that the patient's complaints aren't truly emergent, or require an ambulance.


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