Hospital ERs begin taking appointments
BY DEBORAH L. SHELTON, and PETER FROST, McClatchy-Tribune
CHICAGO -- The first time Erol Uner went to the emergency room recently, he knew something was seriously wrong because fluid retention had caused his legs to double in size. He was seen right away and wound up being hospitalized for two weeks for treatment of congestive heart failure and kidney disease.
People who arrive in the ER with less pressing issues often have to wait for care, sometimes for hours. But when a minor complication sent Uner back to the emergency room at St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates, Ill., he was able to make an appointment online and practically waltz right in.
"Instead of sitting there in the waiting room with everybody else coughing and with colds, I could wait at home," said Uner, of Schaumburg. "I got there and probably waited less than five minutes."
St. Alexius is one of more than a dozen Chicago-area hospitals that have begun posting ER wait times on the Internet or allowing patients to reserve a place in line from their homes. Administrators say they hope to put an end to the long, unpredictable and uncomfortable waits people associate with emergency rooms.
But adding such conveniences is about more than the warm and fuzzy side of medicine. Hospitals paid by Medicare are now required to report whether they are trying to reduce their ER wait times. And a decline in payments from the government and insurance companies is pressuring hospitals to explore new strategies that will attract new patients and boost revenues.
Some experts also question whether such services might send a mixed message to people with life-threatening symptoms. Those patients shouldn't waste time looking for the shortest line, doctors say; they should go directly to the nearest ER, where they will be seen immediately -- regardless of anyone's appointment.
Patients have been slow to take advantage of the services, but the numbers have been growing. At Swedish Covenant Hospital in Chicago, more than 150 patients have made reservations via an online check-in since September, when administrators first offered the service.
"We're trying to use technologies appropriately, and we're trying to be very patient-centered," said Mark Newton, president and CEO at Swedish Covenant. "We're trying to give the patients tools so they can access care more efficiently."
Around 5:30 p.m. on a recent Friday, patients could log on to their computers and decide whether to drive to Rush-Copley Medical Center in Aurora, where the posted wait time was 10 minutes; visit the hospital's other emergency facility in Yorkville, where there was no wait at all, or go somewhere else entirely.