CARROLLWOOD — For most hospitals, emergency room wait times can range from a few minutes to several hours.
But in August, when shoulder pain sent Karen Dill's 81-year-old mother to the hospital, she didn't have to wait at all.
As wait times in emergency rooms across the country continue to increase, UCH-Carrollwood is not the only hospital in Hillsborough County taking action.
At Brandon Regional Hospital, Town & Country Hospital and South Bay Hospital in Sun City Center, visitors can check emergency room wait times online. A billboard on W Brandon Boulevard even displays current wait times at Brandon Hospital to passing motorists.
But those advertised wait times might change by the time a patient reaches the emergency room. With InQuickER, patients are guaranteed to be seen within 15 minutes of their appointment time.
"In this day and age people are busy and they are doing things, and the last thing I want to do is go to an emergency room," Dill said.
When her mother's shoulder pain worsened, Dill, who lives near Carrollwood and about an equal distance from three hospitals, got on the Internet to decide where to take her. That's when she saw the InQuickER option on UCH-Carrollwood's website.
Patients pay a standard $14.99 fee to set an appointment at least an hour and a half in the future. The hospital then guarantees they will be seen within 15 minutes of their scheduled time or refunds their money.
Knowing her mother would be more comfortable at home than in a waiting room, Dill signed up. "It was definitely worth that price to know that there was no hassle," she said.
The average time Americans wait to see an ER doctor ballooned from 38 minutes to 55 minutes in the past 10 years, according to a federal study referenced in a 2009 St. Petersburg Times article. That's due mostly to a combination of increased ER traffic and fewer ERs.
But UCH's remedy isn't for everyone. InQuickER, which is being used in 15 other medical facilities across the United States, won't let a patient register if their symptoms indicate a possible life-threatening emergency, such as chest pain. The system prompts those users instead to call an ambulance and go to the nearest hospital. A nurse at the hospital also double-checks the symptoms after a patient registers to make sure the system didn't allow someone who needs immediate help to sign up.
The service is best suited for people with flu symptoms, headaches, sore throats, sprains or minor sports injuries.
But the system has been little used so far. In an emergency room that serves about 30,000 patients a year, about 60 people have used UCH's InQuickER since it was put in place in July.
Hospital officials expect the number to increase as they roll out advertising and flu season picks up.
"People want to be in to see a doctor and then go on with their lives," said Mary C. Whillock, the hospital's chief operating officer and patient care officer.
"This way, instead of waiting in the waiting room, they are waiting at home," Whillock said.
Time spent at the hospital is cut even further when patients include a brief medical history, a list of current medications and allergies as they register online, which normally must be done before a patient can be treated.
For the hospital and doctors, the new service eases an often unpredictable line of work.
"Anticipating a patient coming in allows us to allocate resources to accommodate that patient," said Jack Badget, UCH-Carrollwood's director of emergency services.
Dill, a mother of three who used the service again a few weeks after the first time, said she wishes all hospitals offered the service.
"In past experiences with any emergency room, there are usually lots of people waiting around, and you never know when you are going to be seen," Dill said. "It's nicer to know you are going to go in and be seen quicker."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3374.