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VOL. 125 | NO. 164 | Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Methodist Posts Real-Time Info on ER Wait

By Tom Wilemon

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Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare has put information at people’s fingertips about the wait times for emergency room service at its hospitals.

The information, which is updated every two minutes, can be accessed by visiting a website or by texting for an automatic reply. Methodist is the first hospital system in the Mid-South to provide the service.

The system went online last Thursday. The website is www.methodisthealth.org/ER. People without Internet access can obtain the same information by texting ERwait to 46786 on a mobile phone.

“It does hold us accountable,” said David Cummings, corporate administrator of patient care operations for Methodist. “We want to provide safe, efficient, high-quality patient care. We need to do it somewhat quickly.”

The average wait time is for the period from when a patient walks into the door of the emergency room until that patient is seen by a doctor, nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant.

Patients with life-threatening situations such as heart attacks, stroke symptoms or traumatic injuries receive priority in emergency rooms. The service is intended for those patients, but for non-critical situations.

“This is really for folks who have a choice,” Cummings said. “They might be between two hospitals.”

He gave the example of someone with a sprained ankle needing to know which hospital had the shortest wait time.

“It’s kind of fairly forward-thinking,” Cummings said.

Other hospital systems that have implemented real-time posting about emergency room wait times include Atlantic General Hospital in Maryland, Scottsdale Healthcare in Arizona and TriStar Health System in Middle Tennessee.

In recent years, average wait times at emergency departments have been on the rise nationwide. The average wait time nationally is 60 minutes, Cummings said, quoting information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s a 32 percent increase from 1996 to 2006.

One factor for the rise is that the number of emergency departments has decreased from 4,019 to 3,833.

“As volume is going up, the number of emergency departments has closed nationwide,” Cummings said.

Dr. Joe Holley, medical director of Shelby County Emergency Services, said he thinks the technology implemented by Methodist will also be useful to paramedics. First responders can share the information with non-critical patients as they select a hospital.

“That’s extremely helpful information,” he said. “I sort of pushed on Methodist to do this.”

Longer term, he sees the potential for an inter-connected system between all Memphis-area hospitals. Such a system would be beneficial in the event of a public health emergency such as an earthquake or pandemic, he said.

“What if you took those numbers and you put them on the same highway safety signs that are on the interstate?” he said.

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