Critics: Emergency department wait time claims unsubstantiated

As hospitals boost their short emergency department (ED) wait times or 30-minutes-or-less pledges, skeptics question whether these claims are substantiated with data.

Hospitals have been touting short wait times on billboards, websites and personal mobile devices via texts, not only to inform the public but also to attract more patients.

Elizabeth Dudek, head of Florida's Agency Health Care Administration, said she does not know of any studies that back up the marketing claims, reports The Miami Herald. Although state regulators haven't received complaints about the promises on ED billboards, Dudek noted consumers should take the wait times with a grain of salt.

It's a "marketing type of ploy," Sal Barbera, a former hospital executive who teaches at Florida International University, said in the article.

Hospital operator HCA, which recently launched a billboard marketing campaign in Virginia, Florida and Texas, said that it is not marketing to nonemergent cases. "ER wait times are approximate and provided for informational purposes only," the HCA website states.

If it's not to lure nonemergent cases, what purpose does ED wait time advertising serve? For the most part, it's to advertise patient convenience and promote hospital satisfaction.

"People may expect long waits when they have an emergency, but there is no need for it," Dr. Assaad Sayah, chief of emergency medicine at Cambridge (Mass.) Health Alliance, said in a press release earlier this year.

Cambridge Health Alliance posts wait times online but also advertises ED quality on billboards on highways, at subways stations and on buses, as well as in radio ads. The Massachusetts-based healthcare system operates one of the state's largest emergency departments with approximately 100,000 visits each year and says its patients typically receive care within five minutes of arrival, according to the release.

Cambridge Health Alliance credits state-of-the-art technology for allowing the three-hospital health system to streamline admissions and patient flow.

"Through careful analysis, planning and operational changes we have actually been able to solve the problem of emergency wait times," Sayah said.

For more information:
- read the Miami Herald article
- read the CHA press release

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