Why hospitals are advertising ER wait times
Whether by Droid, website, text message or billboard, hospitals are advertising the wait times in their emergency rooms with greater visibility than ever, as consumers press for ways to comparison shop for all types of care.
But as the practice of advertising ER wait times has spread from highly competitive healthcare markets such as South Florida to regions across the country, critics say the trend is somewhat troubling because the wait times can confuse consumers while benefiting hospitals’ bottom lines.
The most frequently cited concern is that a patient with a true medical emergency such as a stroke or chest pains might choose to go to a hospital farther from home based on the ads— even though such clearly emergent patients would get first priority in any ER.
Proponents say the ads are intended to attract those cases that hover in a gray zone between needing ER care and a clinic visit after normal business hours, such as sprained ankles and sore throats. Not coincidentally, those quasi-emergency cases also are likely to be patients who have insurance or other means of paying for their care.
The ER advertising trend also comes at a curious time. Average ER wait times are as high
More hospitals begin advertising wait times for their ERs, emphasizing that the target patients aren’t the true emergency cases
as ever, according to studies, and hospital administrators have said in numerous hospital association surveys that the emergency room care required by a larger population of uninsured patients has driven many into financial turmoil.
But the challenges of ER care is no news flash. It was only four years ago that a study by the Institute of Medicine, Hospital-based Emergency Care at the Breaking Point, concluded that hospital emergency department overcrowding was brewing into a national crisis.
“Conventional wisdom holds that EDs are the most expensive source of ambulatory care and that every effort should be made to divert nonemergent care from hospital EDs,” according to a 2001 TrendWatch report from the American Hospital Association on growing concerns about ER overcrowding.
So if emergency care is expensive, and hospital administrators have been complaining about ER overuse for years, why are hospitals in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Virginia and elsewhere advertising to capture a larger market share?
Observers say financial considerations are at play, both in the struggle to keep admitting greater numbers of hospital inpatients through ERs, and with the ongoing struggle with nonaligned urgent-care clinics.
“In general this is an interesting idea. But let’s get it straight. It’s about getting those patients who really have the option of going somewhere else. This is not about getting patients who have true emergencies,” says Sandra Schneider, a physician in emergency medicine in Rochester, N.Y., and president of the American College of Emergency Physicians. “This is their way of competing with urgent care. Emergency departments see a lot of patients that urgent care could see.”
Proponents of such advertising say struggles for market share or financial gains are only part of the story, saying that balancing the loads at various ERs, improving transparency and giving patients more choice are the real drivers.
Jack Mitstifer, chairman of emergency medi-
At six-hospital Detroit Medical Center, advertising the wait times for the system’s ERs is nothing new. It’s been touting a waiting time “guarantee” since 2005.