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February 24, 2013

Waiting game: Website tracks time spent in hospital ERs

— Whether it’s a heart attack or just a painful backyard football injury, time is important when you are waiting in the hospital emergency department.

Hospitals across the region say they are doing everything they can to get patients timely and effective care, but they admit bottlenecks and unexpected surges can slow things down.

A new tool made available by the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services allows patients to see a comparison of hospital ER wait times.

The emergency room data is the newest addition to the Medicare’s “Hospital Compare” website, found under “timely and effective care” at http://www.medicare.


Other areas on the site compare facilities on patient satisfaction surveys, mortality and complication rates, quality care indicators and Medicare payment information.

Waiting times range from five minutes at Conemaugh Health System’s Miners Medical Center in Hastings to 41 minutes as Somerset Hospital. The measurement covers time patients spent in the department before they were seen by a health care professional.

The national benchmark is 30 minutes, and Pennsylvania’s average is 31 minutes.

Emergency room wait times have been a central aspect of local hospital competition. When Conemaugh’s Memorial Medical Center shut down its Lee Campus ER in 2006, waiting times increased across town at the main campus.

When Windber Medical Center disaffiliated from the Conemaugh system a year later, the new competitor launched a marketing campaign highlighting its shorter waits.

Conemaugh responded by adding more exam rooms for noncritical patients and reintroducing its MedWell urgent care center in Richland and Ebensburg.

Windber brought out plans for a $6 million ER expansion project.

The new Medicare data show the efforts have leveled out the initial wait time. Windber’s is 26 minutes, compared with Memorial’s 28 minutes.

But total time is a different story. Whether the patient is admitted or sent home, the average is at least 30 minutes longer at Memorial.

And at Somerset Hospital, the total times are within a few minutes of Memorial’s.

Windber’s director of quality was happy to see the comparisons.

“We are very well aware of our processes and things we could do to get our times down,” Michelle J. Hamula said from Windber. “It was nice to see that in most areas, we were better than average.”

Hamula credited Memorial’s “fast-track” model with getting patients in to see providers in a timely manner, even if the total process is slower.

“I am very proud of both facilities in the area,” she said. “It really shows that health care providers have strong commitments to providing quality care in an efficient manner for the community.”

Somerset’s times may be skewed by figures produced during an intense ramp-up of an electronic medical records program, Chief Operation Officer Craig Saylor said.

“The data extraction during the rollout makes us look like they are waiting longer,” he said.

At Memorial, the total time spent in the emergency department reflects the hospital’s high percentage of more severe cases, the hospital’s emergency services manager said.

Twenty-eight percent of Memorial’s emergency department patients end up being admitted to the hospital, manager Kathy Kantner said.

“That is higher than most hospitals,” she said. “It indicates our patients have a higher acuity; they are sicker coming through the emergency room.”

Status as a Level 1 Trauma Center also can slow down the process for other patients who end up waiting for consultations from doctors working on more severe cases, she added.

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