Hospitals post ER wait times on Web


LEWISTON — Emergency patients at two of the state’s largest hospitals can now see — right from their computer screens — how long they may have to wait to see a doctor.

St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston and Mercy Hospital in Portland are posting emergency room wait times on their Web site home pages. The times are updated automatically, from every several minutes at St. Mary’s to every two hours at Mercy. 

Although it’s increasingly common for hospitals throughout the country to track and post their ER wait times on the Web, St. Mary’s and Mercy are among the first in Maine. 

“The first time I ever saw it was out in Arizona, probably four or five years ago,” said Barbara Pierce, director of emergency services at St. Mary’s. “I really liked the transparency of being able to communicate to the community how long your wait times were.”

Mercy began posting its wait times about two weeks ago. St. Mary’s started last week. Neither hospital knew of the other’s plans, but their reasons for posting were the same: to increase transparency, keep people better informed and improve patient satisfaction.

At Mercy, patients often called to find out how busy the ER was before going to the hospital.  With a sense of the crowd, staff could say only whether the department was busy or not. The hospital’s new computer clock calculates exact wait times for the past two hours and uses that to give patients the current average. 

Since posting their information, both hospitals have found a benefit they didn’t expect: employees more closely watching wait times. 

“I think my staff and the physicians are looking at it more and it’s keeping us motivated,” said Pierce at St. Mary’s. “It’s easy sometimes to slow down, but it really keeps us aware of that time that patients are waiting.”

At both Mercy and St. Mary’s, the goal is to have most patients seen by a medical provider within 30 minutes of entering the ER. 

Mary Mayhew, spokeswoman for the Maine Hospital Association, believes posting wait times is part of a larger technological trend for hospitals.

“The new age of technology and the demand by consumers for not only more information but having information so easily at their fingertips, is putting hospitals in positions of looking at alternative ways of providing information,” Mayhew said. 

Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston and Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor are considering posting their ER wait times to the Web.

“I think it’s a patient satisfier,” said EMMC spokeswoman Kelly Pearson.

“You certainly don’t want someone to triage themselves based on a wait time,” she said. “But that said, you have to be open and honest about your wait times.”

At least one hospital has already considered the idea and rejected it. MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta and Waterville believes posting ER wait times could do more harm than good.

“We wouldn’t want people taking the time to go on the Internet when they really need to be seen quickly,” said Scott Kemmerer, chairman of emergency medicine for MaineGeneral. “We’d rather have them come to us quickly, either by ambulance or by car, and just get seen as soon as possible.”

Maine Medical Center in Portland has also considered posting its time, but has so far decided against it. Leaders there believe it would be too difficult to predict wait times in their very large, very busy ER. 

“It’s not practical,” said spokesman John Lamb.

MaineGeneral leaders, too, believe wait times cannot be accurately predicted in their ER. They also fear patients won’t get the help they need because they’ll see a long wait time on the Web and either wait until it’s shorter or drive to an ER that’s farther away to avoid the line.

But both St. Mary’s and Mercy emphasize that they will still see the most seriously ill or injured patients first, no matter how long the wait is. Web site wait times are not a guarantee, they said; they’re a guide.

“If you come in with a serious illness or injury, you will be seen before the lower acuity patients, no matter what the timer says.” Pierce said. “We are always going to treat people based on their need to be seen.”

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