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Recently, I almost got whiplash when driving past a billboard. The words were clear enough, but the message seemed misdirected. A hospital emergency department was advertising instant access to its wait times. The advertisement used simple words–bold and big enough to see at a glance. But the message targeted the wrong audience.

What’s wrong with this picture?

According to the advertisement, patients get instant access to hospital ED wait times via text, website, or phone call.

I’m suffering crushing chest pain, and I can text to receive the current wait time at the local ED. Great concept? As my kids would say, “Not!” If I am suffering a true emergency, I need to go to the nearest hospital ED stat—not after checking wait times. Guess what the wait time is now—zero minutes; and I shoot through triage like a rabbit in a dog pound.Does the ED actually want a patient suffering crushing chest pain to sit at home until wait times get less than two hours? Checking wait times makes no sense for people who are using the ED for true emergencies. It might even cause them to delay treatment for a true emergency.

Let’s analyze the real target audience of this advertisement. Is the target patients who should be properly using the hospital ED? Is a patient who has time to check wait times seeking care of real emergency (emergency medicine) or is the patient simply looking for timely access to walk-in medical care (urgent care)?

What is the hospital doing? This would be a great advertisement if it were targeting urgent care patients. Instead, this hospital is directly inducing patients to increase inappropriate utilization of the ED.

Let’s imagine that a patient who fell down the stairs has a bone shard sticking out of her shin. Would she go through the trouble of going online, checking wait times, and making her decision of whether to visit the ED now or later–based on short wait times?

If the billboard was really directed at patients with medical emergencies, it might as well read, “Sorry! This isn’t Disney. No fast passes here…. But don’t worry, if the lines are short enough, you might get rapid care for your emergency. Better yet, sit at home with your emergency until we free up some space in the ED. Then, we will have time to see you.

To patients who would be better treated in an urgent care, it could have read, “Got a minor illness? Don’t bother with the local urgent care. We might be able to see you just as fast. Just text…..”

Hospital emergency departments are for patients suffering emergency medical problems. For non-emergencies, urgent care centers are the logical alternative to the hospital ED. Patients who need convenient, timely care for minor medical problems should not be encouraged to check ED wait times. They simply don’t belong in a hospital ED.

Why not use an urgent care instead? Urgent care centers offer:

  • Convenience: Hospital emergency departments are set up for emergencies, not to care for minor medical problems. In one minute, a real emergency can balloon wait times to several hours.
  • Proper Use of Community Resources: Hospital emergency departments are outfitted with millions of dollars of equipment for treatment of bullet wounds, heart attacks and multiple trauma victims. It makes no sense to waste these very-expensive, highly-specialized resources to treat a patient with strep throat. It is like using an aircraft carrier to pull a water skier.
  • Proper Use of Staff: Emergency department staff are highly trained professionals, who spend years honing skills to treat serious emergencies. It is a waste of their precious skills to treat patients with minor complaints.
  • Cost: A visit to a hospital ED generally costs over $500 for even the simplest problem. A visit to an urgent care usually costs less than $130. For anyone concerned about the cost of medical care, properly utilizing urgent care centers seems like a no-brainer.

America needs hospitals, payors and physicians to work together to make a more efficient healthcare system. One way to do this is simply to encourage the public not to use hospital emergency departments for minor medical problems. Instead, it is a community service to encourage patients to utilize urgent care centers, which are a much more convenient and cost-effective than hospital emergency departments.

If you have seen advertising that seems to encourage the public to use a hospital ED instead of an urgent care for minor injuries or illnesses, please comment.

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