At a time when patients across the nation are spending more time waiting in emergency rooms, area hospitals are trying to cut the time it takes to get from the door to the doctor.
University Community Hospital in Tampa has emergency medical technicians that greet patients and family immediately upon arrival. At Tampa General, patients are assessed by a registered nurse once they enter. Bay Care Health System and TGH allow patients to fill out registration forms after they're in a hospital bed.
But one hospital chain is taking the unusual step of letting its patients know ahead of time how long they'll have to wait.
HCA, with 15 hospitals in West Florida, posts ER wait times on its Web site, through a text-message service, and on billboards.
"Accidents happen fast. Emergency care should too," reads one billboard on Ulmerton Road in Largo.
The electronic sign lists current wait times for three Pinellas hospitals — Largo Medical Center (13 minutes at one point Friday afternoon), Northside in St. Petersburg (0 minutes) and St. Petersburg General (10 minutes).
Another billboard on W Brandon Boulevard told passing motorists they'd have to wait 43 minutes to be seen at nearby Brandon Regional.
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The average time Americans wait to see an ER doctor has ballooned from 38 minutes to 55 minutes in the last 10 years, according to a federal study. That's due mostly to a combination of increased ER traffic and fewer ERs.
Long waiting times aren't just an inconvenience. Medically, it's better not to have sick people sitting together for a long time. Financially, it's bad for business to get a reputation for making your customers wait.
Officials at the for-profit HCA say a nearly three-year effort has decreased wait times. "For the public, a well-run ER is a well-run hospital," said HCA spokeswoman Debra McKell.
She said that about three years ago, the company was seeing changes in the way people were using its hospitals, with more entering through the ER.
That's a trend seen nationwide. From 1996 to 2006, the number of visits to hospital emergency departments increased 32 percent, from 90.3 million to 119.2 million, according to a 2008 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
HCA brought in a management engineer, who worked with medical staff to analyze everything from "how many Band-Aids should be in a room to what kind of software they would use," McKell said.
New software allowed nurses and other staff to better monitor their ERs, including how long patients were waiting to be seen.
Average ER wait times began to drop below the national average of 55 minutes, a fact HCA wanted to announce to the public. In the spring, HCA began posting wait times on its Web site. It also allowed the public to access wait times through text message or RSS feed.
The first billboard went up in August, along Interstate 4 in Sanford, listing wait times for Central Florida Regional Hospital. Four others followed, including in Largo and Brandon, and five more will be added soon.
The software averages wait times at each ER over the previous four hours, and new figures are posted every 30 minutes.
McKell says, however, ER workloads can change at any time, and the Web site notes that the "ER wait times are approximate and provided for informational purposes only."
The wait time system is also being used in HCA's East Florida division. A few hospitals around the country have launched similar efforts. One in O'Fallon, Mo., uses the Twitter micro-blogging service to communicate its ER wait times.
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To date, HCA West Florida has received nearly 5,700 text-message requests for ER wait times. But officials say it's probably too early to determine the campaign's impact.
Dr. Ayesha Hussein, ER medical director at Northside Hospital in St. Petersburg, said she hasn't heard much feedback from patients about the campaign, but she knows wait times matter to them.
"It's nice for them to know even before they enter what their wait time can be," she said.
Helen Vlancsin of St. Petersburg visited Northside's emergency room on Wednesday after she stumbled and fell, fracturing two ribs. She wasn't aware of the campaign, but thinks that anything to reduce wait times is a good idea.
"Once, I had to wait a while, and that disturbed me," Vlancsin, 92, said of a visit a few years ago. "I was so sick at that time."
But she says she didn't have to wait very long on Wednesday.
HCA officials don't think the service will have unintended consequences, such as attracting more patients who don't really need to be seen at an emergency room.
Hussein said Northside's emergency department deals with patients with less serious injuries or illnesses in a separate area than those who are more seriously hurt.
McKell said that the effort is not just about speed, but about quality as well.
"It's better for the patient to be seen, treated and gone than making them wait with other sick people," she said. "There's a huge benefit to that."
Richard Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8330