Healthcare News & Insights

Online appointments ease grueling ER wait times

Wait times in emergency rooms (ER) can be sickening. Patients are bound to feel worse when they have to endure those interminable waits in an over-crowded emergency department. 

178913481New technology, however,  is making things better in ERs.

At a number of hospitals across the country, patients can book an ER appointment online, Kaiser Health News reported.

“Wait for the ER at home” is the tag line marketed through TV commercials by Dignity Health, which runs a large network of hospitals throughout the country.

The network, which operates 39 medical centers in three states, began offering online ER reservations a year ago. Since then roughly 12,000 patients have scheduled ER visits at hospitals in California, Arizona and Nevada.

The technology is simple and user-friendly. Patients go to the hospital’s website where they access the online reservation form which asks them to enter the reason for their visit and check a box which indicates that they can wait to be treated until their appointment time.

Online appointments are not intended for patients with life-threatening conditions, like chest pain, persistent bleeding or trouble breathing. But patients suffering from non-life threatening conditions — ankle sprains, sore throats, earaches or  fevers — would be considered good candidates for online appointments.

There’s always a chance that patients who make online appointments will be bumped by more serious cases, but more times than not, patients are seen within an hour of making their appointment.

Crunch time in the ER

The Affordable Care Act brought a surge of patients to emergency rooms around the country — the opposite of what the law’s proponents argued.  They said people insured under Obamacare would would make appointments with a doctor instead of turning to the emergency room for care.

However, a nationwide shortage of primary care doctors, especially in poor and rural areas, has fueled the number of ER visits. Add to the mix that many doctors are turning the newly insured away because almost a third of them are covered under Medicaid which pays doctors at much lower rates than private insurers.

That leaves the ER as a last resort.

The University of California San Francisco Medical Center (UCSF) has expanded its online appointment technology to its acute care facilities where cases are handled on a same-day, walk-in basis, and is also being used to book appointments with primary care doctors.

“Before, patients would park their car and pay the garage fee only to find out we can’t see them,” said Eva Turner assistant director of ambulatory services for UCSF’s primary care department.

Controversial technology

Critics of the technology say that an on-line reservation system may be convenient, but it isn’t cost effective.

At Loma Linda University Medical Center in San Bernardino County, the hospital eliminated the technology altogether when nurses became frustrated with complaints from walk-ins who didn’t make appointments that others were being seen ahead of them.

Proponents say patients appreciate the convenience of knowing when they will be seen. And, the technology allows the ER staff to know what to expect.

With Medicare reimbursement tied to customer service, Dignity Health, which has expanded the use of the technology to its urgent care centers and doctor’s offices, hopes the new service will boost patient satisfaction scores.

“It makes for a happier camper,” said Susan Dubuque, a national expert in hospital marketing. “When it comes to health care, consumers want more control over everything.”

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  1. Heather Walker says:

    This is wonderful. Patients should be able to take advantage of last-minute appointments and have more of an active role in getting in to see a service provider. Here at, we’ve seen how offering patients the option to book online increases patient satisfaction.

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