Advertising emergency wait times a double-edged sword

Hospitals in recent years have been bragging about wait times with website emergency department (ED) clocks and billboard advertisements, but the marketing practice can be a double-edged sword.

"[M]ember hospitals have mixed emotions about marketing emergency rooms," Linda Quick, president of the South Florida Hospital and Healthcare Association, told the Sun Sentinel. "The good news is you can advertise and get more people in the door, and the bad news is you can get people you wish didn't come."

With one out of eight visits resulting in a hospital admission, attracting more ED patients could mean more dollars for the hospital pocketbook.

Nevertheless, one in 10 ED visits are nonemergent cases, the newspaper noted, suggesting the resources could be otherwise spent on real emergencies.

Physician-in-Charge of Henry Ford Health System Earlexia M. Norwood, however, said giving patients this kind of public information might actually push them to seek nonurgent care elsewhere. "This information allows people who have nonemergent situations to look for alternative options, such as making evening or weekend appointments with their primary care physician, which is being encouraged in the marketplace," Norwood wrote last month in Politics365.

There's not many rules on whether the marketed wait times are even accurate, the Sun Sentinel noted while instructing patients not to believe everything they read on billboards.

With no regulatory body policing their accuracy, wait times are advertised as short as only a few minutes. Notably, those times usually measure when a clinician sees the patient and not when treatment is administered, the newspaper noted.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released Tuesday, mean wait time is about an hour, jumping 25 percent from 46.5 minutes in 2003 to 58.1 minutes in 2009. Mean wait times were longer in EDs that went on ambulance diversion or boarded admitted patients in hallways and in other spaces, as well as in urban areas and in hospitals that had more annual visits.

EDs saw 136.1 million visits in 2009, up 32 percent from 102.8 million visits in 1999, according to the CDC.

For more information:
- read the Sun Sentinel article
- see the Politics 365 opinion piece
- check out the CDC report

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