North Texas hospitals tout online wait times for ER visits

Hate spending hours in an emergency room for a deep cut or some other minor medical crisis?

Now, consumers who are pressed for time don't have to wait around. They can text, go online or download an iPhone app to find the emergency room wait times at eight HCA North Texas hospitals and one free-standing facility.

Billboards with clocks also display average wait times as part of HCA's "Moving at the Speed of Life" campaign.

The promotion is the latest effort to meet consumer demands for fast medical care at a time when ER visits nationwide hit a high of 123 million in 2008, compared with 117 million in 2007.

On average, patients nationwide spend four hours in emergency rooms. Patients with minor injuries or illnesses may wait one or two hours before seeing a physician, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians.

The wait-time campaign isn't aimed at someone having a heart attack or stroke, but at people with urgent care needs such as a sprained ankle.

It's an easy way to find the closest ER with the shortest wait time, said Winston Borland, president and CEO of Medical Center of Arlington.

"If you've ever waited in the ER, you certainly notice how much time it takes," he said. "People coming to the ER want to be seen quickly and they want to have good care."

The average wait time for all HCA hospitals in North Texas is 21 minutes from door to doctor. The goal is 15 minutes.

For the most part, such initiatives are public relations campaigns that are being used in large, competitive markets, said Dr. David Seaberg, president-elect of the American College of Emergency Physicians.

On the positive side, the campaigns offer transparency and provide information that can help consumers. On the flip side, if someone is having a serious medical problem, emergency department personnel are trained to triage patients, he said.

"It doesn't matter if the wait is 27 minutes or what it says on your app or a billboard, if you have chest pains, you're coming back right away," Seaberg said.

Other hospitals are offering their own fast-service campaigns.

Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Plano is advertising a 30-minute promise to see a physician, said Whitney Jodry, a spokeswoman for Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth, which has a 30-minute average wait.

Texas Health Resources uses an iTriage smartphone application that allows consumers to search medical symptoms and possible causes, find the nearest Texas Health hospital emergency department and check the location on a map.

During an emergency, people by nature head to the nearest hospital, according to research conducted by HCA. By checking the wait time, someone may find it is worth driving an extra 10 minutes to a hospital that can treat them sooner.

On Monday afternoon, the wait time for Medical Center of Arlington was 22 minutes, but about 15 miles away at Las Colinas Medical Center it was five.

Even during a busy flu season or other demanding periods, HCA plans to keep the wait times short.

"We've put in place procedures, so if we get a rush of patients for something such as the flu we'll have additional providers ready," Borland said.

Jan Jarvis, 817-390-7664