Wed, Jul 02 2014
Scott Paul knew he needed to head to the emergency room on a recent Sunday after his foot became so painful he couldn't walk. The one thing that gave him pause was the thought of having to wait several hours next to a bunch of sick people.
But his wife, Jeannette, remembered she'd seen Dignity Health television commercials featuring a woman sitting in a hospital waiting room and then cutting to the same woman sitting on her living room couch as words come up on the screen: "Wait for the ER from home."
"I've been in emergency rooms before, so I thought I'd see if this worked out," she said, and went online to book an appointment for her husband at Dignity's St. Mary's Medical Center in San Francisco.
"They actually had an appointment that was within the hour. It was fast, it was convenient and there was also immediately confirmation we had the appointment," she said.
Dignity Health, which runs a large network of hospitals out of its San Francisco headquarters, also offers online ER booking at Saint Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco and Sequoia Hospital in Redwood City as a way to overcome the frequently grueling emergency room wait times.
Dignity isn't the only network employing the strategy. In an era of increased competition driven by the nation's Affordable Care Act, hospital executives around the country are hoping online appointments will attract patients eager to avoid long waits in a crowded and often chaotic environment.
"It makes for a happier camper," said Susan Dubuque, a national expert in hospital marketing. "When it comes to health care, consumers want more control over everything."
Not for everyone
Emergency room appointments are not intended for patients with serious emergencies -- those with life-threatening, debilitating or urgent medical conditions.
Patients with chest pain, persistent bleeding or trouble breathing, for instance, are instructed to call 911 or go directly to an emergency room. Those with an ankle sprain or a fever, for instance, might be able to make an appointment.
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.