Tool Helps Determine Emergency Room Wait Times

By Chris Coffey
|  Thursday, Jan 9, 2014  |  Updated 6:39 PM CDT
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NBC5 Investigates -- in cooperation with our investigative partner ProPublica.org -- has compiled federal data for an easy way for you to find out, on average, just what kind of wait you're in store for at hospitals across Chicago and its suburbs. Chris Coffey reports.

NBC5 Investigates -- in cooperation with our investigative partner ProPublica.org -- has compiled federal data for an easy way for you to find out, on average, just what kind of wait you're in store for at hospitals across Chicago and its suburbs. Chris Coffey reports.

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It can take a patient as long as two-and-a-half hours to be seen in some Chicago emergency rooms, according to new findings by NBC5 Investigates and ProPublica.org. But now there is a tool - created by ProPublica -- to help Chicago-area patients take more control - and quite possibly reduce the time it takes to get treatment in an emergency.

So often - and especially this time of year - E.R. waiting rooms are full of sick and injured people who desperately want to see a doctor, and who sit waiting for their names to be called. Those waits can last from minutes to several hours, according to the most recent data obtained from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Check ER Wait Times In Your Area
The information compiled in ProPublica's E.R. Wait Watcher is based on a look back at historic average wait times for emergency rooms, based on the most recent federal data compiled by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

NBC5 Investigates -- in cooperation with our investigative partner ProPublica.org -- has compiled federal data for an easy way for you to find out, on average, what kind of wait you're in store for at hospitals across Chicago and its suburbs.

On arrival at an E.R., the average patient wait for a doctor -- both nationally and statewide -- clocks in at about twenty-eight minutes. But at famously busy hospitals, like Cook County's John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital on Chicago's near west side, the wait can be much longer.

"Every day we see between 300 to 400 hundred patients," said Dr. Jeff Schaider, chairman of Stroger's department of emergency medicine.

Stroger's average wait is 153 minutes, according to ProPublica's E.R. Wait Watcher. That's more than two-and-a-half hours, and it's the fourth-longest wait of all hospitals that reported their times, nationwide. But the Cook County Health & Hospitals System claims a lot factors into wait times:
"As the need to admit from the E.D. arises, you must have an appropriate and available bed," said spokesperson Marisa Kolias. "This often results in longer stays in the E.D."

Schaider also said Stroger Hospital never goes on "bypass", when an emergency department sends ambulances to other hospitals when their E.R.s are full.

"The reality about the waits in the E.D. is we triage all of our patients," Schaider said. "So the sickest patients are seen immediately, obviously."

Schaider said the hospital's emergency department is making improvements to patient wait time. He points to quicker lab test results that are contributing to shorter arrival-to-doctor wait times at Stroger.

The other longest average wait-times in the Chicago area, according to ProPublica's study, are Rush University Medical Center (also on the near-west side) at 140 minutes; Provident Hospital of Chicago (on the south side) at 106 minutes; Saint Anthony Hospital (on the southwest side) at 98 minutes and The University of Chicago Medical Center (in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood) at 93 minutes.

A phone call to Rush to discuss its reported average wait times went unreturned.  But after NBC5 Investigates aired its story, John Pontarelli, Rush's Associate Vice President for Public Relations, called to take strong issue with the reported wait times and with the NBC5/ProPublica findings. 

"Here's a report on wait times based on federal data that doesn't at all reflect current wait times," Pontarelli said.  "These times just aren't valid."

"The E.R. Wait Watcher Tool you promote does not give actual wait times," said Pontarelli.  "We tried the tool this morning with a nearly empty emergency room and zero minutes wait time, and the tool said the Rush wait time was more than two hours, and to travel to another hospital several miles away."

The average times in the E.R. Wait Watcher Tool are based on a year's worth of data submitted by hospitals to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on measures of "Timely and Effective Care."  They do not reflect current times at any given moment.  The CMS last updated this data on December 12, 2013.

The tool also states, "For a current wait time, call the hospital.  If you are having a heart attack or life-threatening emergency, call 911."

Based on this average data, some of the shortest wait times in the Chicago area include Methodist Hospital of Chicago (on the city's north side) at seven minutes; Edward Hospital in Naperville at ten minutes; Ingalls Memorial Hospital (in Harvey) at ten minutes; Presence Saint Joseph Hospital (in Lincoln Park) at twelve minutes and Vista Medical Center West (in Waukegan) at fourteen minutes.

The medical staff at Edward Hospital said its short patient wait time is the result of a total team effort.

"From our clinical staff, from housekeeping to the physicians, we've actually made those wait times come down tremendously, and I think it's a satisfier for our patients and our population here," said Dr. Daryl Wilson of Edward Hospital.

Shelley Pavilionis arrived to Edward on January 2nd after experiencing shortness of breath. Pavilionis, who was 25 weeks pregnant, said she received care within minutes upon entering the Edward emergency department.

"A nurse came in right away, and then the doctor came in probably shortly after so it was very, very quick," Pavilionis said.

Hospital consultant James DiGiorgio said a short E.R. wait time is considered the gold standard in the hospital industry. He said hospitals are improving wait times by doing away with repetitive and otherwise unnecessary steps.

"It's the key factor for effecting patient satisfaction," DiGiorgio said.

Travel is another factor considered in ProPublica's ER Wait Watcher, which tracks travel times to all hospitals within a five-mile radius, using real-time Google traffic information.

So: Say you're crossing the street on an icy weekday afternoon at State and Madison in Chicago, and you slip and break your arm. The closest hospital is Northwestern Memorial - just a mile away. But the E.R. Wait Watcher will immediately tell you that it'll take you an estimated 52 minutes (in travel time plus average wait time) to be seen there. You might consider going to St. Joseph's instead, because even though it'll take longer to get there, you may be seen much sooner - a total of 27 minutes in travel and average wait time combined.

The point is: The E.R. Wait Watcher allows YOU to make that choice, instead of being completely at the mercy of the E.R. receptionist at the first hospital you get to -- who may (or may not) be calling your name next.

And back to that broken arm: The E.R. Wait Watcher compares hospitals for another standard: How long patients with broken bones had to wait before receiving pain medication.

According to the average times cited in that study, Stroger affords the longest wait for pain meds: 173 minutes, or nearly three hours. Provident is second at 162 minutes, and St. Anthony is third at 118 minutes.

However, the staff at Stroger said there is no reason why those patients should not get their pain medications rapidly.

"A lot of our broken bones are seen in our trauma area right next door," Schaider said. "Those patients are seen immediately."

NBC5Investigates and Pro Publica team up occasionally to bring you investigative stories stories with "moral force" that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them. To find more Pro Publica stories, visit their website.

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