Online appointments gain favor as ED wait times soar

An increasing number of hospitals allow patients to make online appointments to visit the emergency room in an attempt to ease seemingly interminable waits as ERs become more crowded.

Dignity Health, for instance, offers online appointments at its San Francisco and Redwood, California, hospitals, marketed through TV commercials with the slogan, "Wait for the ER from home," reports the San Francisco Chronicle.

The appointments aren't for life-threatening conditions such as chest pain or trouble breathing. But those with a fever or sprained ankle won't be left sitting in a waiting room with a bunch of sick people.

The online form for the University of California San Francisco Medical Center requires patients to enter the reason for their visit and to check a box indicating they can wait until their appointment time. True emergencies still take precedence, but even patients who are bumped by more serious cases are seen relatively quickly, according to the article.

The technology allows the ED staff to know who's coming in and can help build loyalty among patients. It's an example of the lessons that urgent care facilities are learning from the fast-food industry, including putting a focus on branding, efficiency and convenience.

Emergency departments report that use is up since expanded coverage under the Affordable Care Act took effect in January, a survey from the American College of Emergency Physicians found. And wait times are on the rise, with waits at some facilities far longer than the national average of 28 minutes.

Researchers from the University of Florida, however, are touting the success of a data-driven simulation model that lets them evaluate the effects of various interventions to ease ED crowding before actually taking those actions.

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