Mind and Body

Need to go to the Emergency Room? Make an Appointment Online

The average stay in an emergency room is more than four hours, and a recent GAO report found that emergency room patients who "need" to be seen in less than 15 minutes are usually seen in twice that time.

The daunting statistics are enough to make people think twice about going to the ER if their life is not in danger.

Now, more and more hospitals around the country are hoping to shorten the wait by introducing an online system where patients can make an appointment.

It's called In Quick ER. For a small fee ranging from $15 to $25, people with urgent, but non-life threatening illnesses or injuries can go online and make an appointment for later that day.

When the patient arrives at the hospital, instead of sitting for a long time in the waiting room, they are guaranteed to be seen within 15 minutes -- or they get their money back.

"You can go on and reserve a time in advance and what it truly does is it holds your place in line as if you walked in to register at the emergency room department, so you can say at noon 'I want to be seen at 6 p.m. after work,' " said Shawn Dewers, the chief business development officer at Fountain Valley Hospital in Orange County, Calif.

Doctors say overcrowding in emergency rooms is a serious problem and this system helps them better monitor non-acute patients.

"The value of that for the patient is that when they do come in, in almost all cases they'll be seen quickly," said Dr. Peter Anderson, emergency services medical director at Fountain Valley Hospital. "The value for the hospital is the fact that if we have a surge, then we can take that patient and push them back into a time frame that the surge is likely over."

Melissa Mariotti used the system at Fountain Valley when she had what turned out to be bronchitis. Mariotti says it was worth the extra money.

"I've been in ER situations before and it's sitting there for hours and not getting home until really early in the morning, and just nothing this fast and this quick. It's awesome," exclaimed Mariotti.

So far 25 hospitals and urgent care centers nationwide are using this online program. The company that runs it says 95 percent of appointments have been kept.

Some health care experts say programs like this are just a quick fix for a much bigger problem. Issues that include emergency departments closing, people using ERs because they can't get in to see their own doctor or limited options after hours.

Another issue is "boarding," when patients waiting to be moved into a hospital bed causes gridlock in the ER.

"They're Band-Aids that are created because we've got a real serious problem with access to emergency care, and we're an entrepreneurial country; people see an opportunity to market a product or a service, they're going to do it, " says Dr. Art Kellermann, vice president and director of RAND health.

Kellermann says the solution lies in better management and oversight.

"Whenever anybody who is a doctor or a nurse or a hospital administrator tells you the answer to the health care challenge, what they're talking about is more funding; shoot them. We're spending $2.5 trillion a year in this country on health care. Don't tell me that's not enough money to do everything we need to do to take care of people, " Kellermann says.

According to a recent RAND study, nearly 20 percent of hospital ER visits could be treated at urgent care or retail medical clinics. The report says that could potentially save $4 billion a year in health care costs.