Jeff Segal, MD, JD, FACS

One of the most common complaints patients have is about waiting times.

Doctor Smith was fantastic, he saved my life, but I had to wait 45 minutes for my appointment.

The WSJ reported that some health systems with multiple ER’s are implementing unique actions to address this common complaint – posting waiting times so that patients can choose the facility with the shortest queue. In fact, Akron General Health System in Ohio began streaming waiting times for 2 of its ER departments on highway billboards. The idea is that patients with minor needs can choose the facility with the shortest wait times; reducing “left-without-being-seen” rates and improving patient satisfaction.

But does this innovation come with a down side?

One immediate concern is that patients may not realize the severity of their condition. Someone experiencing chest pains may think they are OK to drive an additional 10 minutes to a farther facility; when in fact, they need to get to the close ER possible and be “fast tracked” into care. Doctors are also concerned that the posted wait times don’t accurately portray life in the ER. Dr. Jack Mitstifer, chair of emergency medicine at Akron General Health reported that the hospital system stopped posting wait times for its downtown facility when those times “didn’t reflect reality.”

The over use of emergency rooms – more specifically, patients using the ER for general practice care – is a huge burden on our health care system. Will posting waiting times incentivize more people to use the ER for non-critical care?

I’ve had this nagging cough for a couple of days, Hey, look there, only 15 minutes to see a doctor in the ER, think I’ll drop in.

Medicine is complicated. And innovation is difficult. We can all agree that methods that reduce patient waiting times are beneficial. We just want to make sure that those innovations don’t create more problems than they solve.