August 26, 2010

Posted E.R. wait times: MountainStar Health Care

I just returned from a trip to my home state of Utah and I noticed these new billboards from a health care company MountainStar HealthCare.  I stopped and took a picture of one:

According to their website, the numbers on the left of each of the billboard is the wait time as defined by:

... the time it takes to see a qualified medical professional, defined as a Doctor of Medicine (MD), Doctor of Osteopathy (DO), Physician Assistant (PA) or Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner (ARNP). 
ER wait times represent a four-hour rolling average updated every 30 minutes, and is defined as the time of patient arrival until the time the patient is greeted by a qualified medical professional. Patients are triaged at arrival and are then seen by a qualified medical professional in priority order based on their presenting complaint and reason for visit.
National average wait time is one hour, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). HCA hospitals strive to beat the national average.
I found these billboards pretty interesting because just a week before we had dinner with a friend and her family in Montreal and we discussed that the typical ER wait in Canada was several (7 or 8) hours long.  They saw a similar sign during a recent trip to Florida and were impressed with short wait time in the US.

I think the fact that the hospitals have seemed to be able to really focus on shortening wait time is great, but except for impressing Canadians, I'm a bit uncertain about why they have spent so much money to display the stats on a billboard. Is there really a lot of choosing going on as you decide which ER to go to?  If you have a life or limb threatening illness or injury, do you first ask yourself "hmmm, now which hospital will probably have a shorter wait time"?  Or do you just go to the closest one?  They also post the wait time online here and have an iPhone app to check wait times here - do they expect people to check these as they travel to the ER? 

MountainStar is competing in a market dominated by Inter-Mountain Health Care (IHC) one of the largest health care providers in the country, and so they have a TV campaign with the premise that "bigger is not always better" directly attacking IHC's size. The ER wait time billboard campaign seems to be using their operational capabilities as a marketing ploy (which I think is pretty cool), but I wonder if the low wait times due to excess capacity or low demand as opposed to just smart patient processing.  The fact that they are calling out IHC and trying to actively compete for patients makes me think that they have more of a capacity / demand problem then a unique operational capability (maybe I'm wrong).

If the campaigns are successful and the hospitals start to see more ER patients, will the wait time remain low? If not, will the billboards stay up? Also, a statistic is less impressive in isolation, i.e. I want a billboard that shows the current size of the queue, the percentage of occupied beds, the ratio of patients to doctors, the average number patients per hour, the standard deviation of the wait times, etc.I also want to know what the nearest competitor is doing on the the same metrics for comparison.  But, alas, I am never happy and I am a nerd.

What do you think of the ER wait time billboards?


  1. I think it's about trying to change norms and public image. People are coming to expect a 4 hour wait and resent that (I did and do). Knowing the local public hospital is well run compared to what I think the national average is makes me more willing to approve bonds for local medical spending, perhaps.

  2. I think all advertising for hospitals is ridiculous. I have never chosen any hospital or doctor by an advertisement, I choose by where my insurance will pay first and then by location. So, instead of advertising I think they should take that money and lower costs.