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Why Hospitals Should Stop Advertising ER Wait Times

   September 16, 2015

Reports of inaccurate wait times combined with greater access to consumer reviews of patient experiences are making it harder to justify the use of wait times in hospital marketing campaigns.

In competitive markets, hospitals strive to entice patients to choose their emergency departments to edge out the competition. EDs are seen as the gateway to the hospital and to a lifetime of loyalty. A patient may come for stitches in the ED today, a baby delivery next year, and so on.

For years hospitals and health systems have been advertising emergency department wait times via digital billboards, smartphone apps, and online widgets.

But, despite its popularity with marketers, the practice of advertising wait times remains controversial. Since those who have time to check wait times probably aren't experiencing a true medical emergency the thinking goes, ideally, those patients should be directed to a more appropriate care access point.

Reports of inaccurate wait times combined with greater public access to such information are making it harder to justify the use of wait times in marketing campaigns.

False Expectations
Last week, an Orlando news station aired an exposé revealing that local hospitals' advertised wait times are drastically inaccurate.

And, while it may sound like the station launched an in-depth investigation that involved sending patient moles with fake ailments to the ER, the discrepancies didn't take much work to suss out. Reporters simply checked hospitals' advertised wait times online and then called and asked ER staff.

Across the board, online wait times and staff-reported wait times varied widely, in one case a wait posted online as 60-plus minutes was estimated at four hours by ED staff, when reporters inquired.

"The blanket assumption that there is a significant difference in emergency room wait times posted on our website and actual wait times is inaccurate," a Florida Hospital spokesperson said in response to the report. "The number of emergency room patients and the severity of their conditions can vary widely from minute to minute. As required and expected, patients suffering from life- or limb-threatening conditions are given priority."

The hours-long discrepancies combined with public responses like that won't bolster much confidence with healthcare consumers. Not only does posting overly optimistic wait times set false expectations for patients, but it may slow the ED down even more by attracting a large amount of people expecting speedy care. This practice seems like a lose/lose proposition for hospitals.

Marianne Aiello is a contributing writer at HealthLeaders Media.

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