Institutions Promoting Pledge to See Patients Within Half-Hour

Spokesman Review (Spokane, WA)

August 28, 2014

Copyright 2014 Spokane Spokesman-Review

Deaconess and Valley hospitals have launched a visible new ad campaign to tout their emergency room wait times.

Billboards—three in Spokane and three in Spokane Valley—post electronic wait times averaged over the last two hours and updated every 15 minutes.

"It's pretty real-time reporting," said Adam Richards, director of emergency services at Deaconess Hospital.

The hospitals are promoting their pledge to get patients from "door-to-provider within 30 minutes."

ER wait times are taking on more importance under healthcare reform, according to the American Hospital Association. Wait times are a key driver in patient satisfaction, said a November report in the association's Hospitals & Health Networks publication. "As wait time increases, patient satisfaction drops. That fact becomes more significant because reimbursement is tied to HCAHPS surveys," it said, referring to national, standardized surveys of patient experiences.

The American College of Emergency Physicians, in a 2012 "information paper" on publicizing ER wait times, found that it can be an effective marketing tool but cautioned that not all hospitals calculate "wait time" the same. The group advised using a door-to-qualified-provider definition.

Richards said people need to understand that the wait times listed may not hold by the time they get to the hospital. "Circumstances can change rapidly... If there's a major accident or numerous severe illness or injury cases arriving at once, it could take longer." Patients are triaged, with the sickest patients seen first. He added, "Hopefully, people aren't bringing a stopwatch."

Deaconess' emergency room has about 21 beds and healthcare providers see anywhere from 95 to 100 patients per day, or around 34,675 annually.

Across the hill, Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center has the busiest emergency department in the Inland Northwest—around 74,000 patients came through the doors last year. Sacred Heart is the only local ER that can take severe trauma cases; it also has a children's emergency room and the region's only psychiatric emergency department.

Those serious cases and broader services push average emergency room wait times at Sacred Heart to about an hour from check-in to seeing a healthcare provider, according to data collected between April 2012 and April 2013 by ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism group. The wait time is the fourth-longest in the state after hospitals in Puyallup, Centralia and Olympia.

Joe Robb, Sacred Heart's spokesman, said the hospital calculates a number of different wait-time statistics. And wait times vary, he said: "If you go at 6 a.m., it's going to be pretty quick. If you go at prime time, it's going to take a while."

Sacred Heart opened an expanded emergency department in January 2013 as a response to patient numbers nearly doubling during a five-year period. The renovations included the separate children's emergency room and the implementation of a practice in which the patients are separated based on the reasons for their visit.

At Deaconess, emergency department renovations began in April. The upgrades include 22 patient rooms, including two for trauma, two for obstetrics or gynecology and an isolation exam room. The work is expected to be done in 2015.

But the best possible way to address emergency room wait times is to educate people about appropriate emergency room use, Robb said.

The basic guidelines:

  • Use an emergency department for severe bleeding, loss of consciousness, blurred vision or loss of vision, any difficulty breathing or chest pain.
  • Use urgent care facilities for illnesses, simple fractures, migraines and minor lacerations.

The Washington State Hospital Association released a report in March showing how a campaign about appropriate use of emergency rooms triggered a drop in visits. After the yearlong campaign expired, the rate of emergency room visits to Washington hospitals declined by 9.9%.

Sacred Heart recently opened three urgent care centers: at 551 E. Hawthorne Road in north Spokane; at 421 S. Division St. near the hospital campus; and at Providence Medical Park, 16528 E. Desmet Court in Spokane Valley.

"Urgent care centers can handle a lot of health issues," Robb said. "The treatment can be much faster. If people know which place is appropriate to go to then that will be more cost-effective."

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