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The Latest In Medical Convenience: ER Appointments

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At UCSF Medical Center, patients must explain in an online form the reason for their visit and check a box indicating they can wait for treatment until their scheduled appointment. Even then, they may be bumped by more seriously ill patients, but in most cases they will be seen soon after arrival.

The approach makes business sense for hospitals because it lets medical staff know who may be coming through the emergency room door and helps reduce crowding and decrease wait times, hospital executives say. They say the service also helps build a loyal clientele among patients.

Patients want to access health care the same way they do services in other industries, such as retail or travel, said Chris Song, a spokesman for InQuicker, a Nashville company that offers the online scheduling in California and 25 other states.

"When is the last time someone bought plane tickets at the gate?" he said.

UCSF Medical Center started using InQuicker in its emergency department in 2012 and expanded it a year later to its acute care clinic, where less-critical cases are handled on a same-day, walk-in basis. Now the system is also being used to book primary care appointments.

Under the former way of doing things, Eva Turner, assistant director of ambulatory services for UCSF's primary care department, said patients were often frustrated because they had no way of knowing in advance if same-day acute-care appointments were still available. "Before (InQuicker), patients would park their car, pay the garage fee only to find out we can't see them," she said.

Critics weigh costs

Some critics say the online check-in system may be convenient but is not necessarily cost-effective. It could encourage patients to seek care in the costliest of settings, emergency rooms, when they should be going to less-expensive urgent care centers or medical offices, they say.

If the country wants to decrease health care costs, patients need to be treated at the right place at the right time, said Del Morris, president of the California Academy of Family Physicians. Patients who can make appointments should do so at their doctors' offices, he said.

Wed, Jul 02 2014

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