Forget the ER Wait Time Billboard, New Website Lists Wait Times by Zip Code Along With Patient Satisfaction Scores

Last month, with little fanfare, nonprofit news organization ProPublica launched its ER Wait Watcher, which displays average wait times and patient satisfaction scores for the closest emergency rooms, based on a user's zip code.

I only heard about the website because I subscribe to ProPublica's email alerts and have been a fan of the organization, which is best known for its public-interest investigative journalism, for years.

The ER Wait Watcher website is pretty remarkable. By simply entering a zipcode, users are provided detailed information on local ERs, and estimated wait times. It also calculates a total time to be seen, which includes average wait time plus current travel time. So, although Northwestern Memorial's ER is just 6 minutes away from my office, with an average wait time of 45 minutes, it will be around 51 minutes before I'm seen. However, I could drive 13 minutes to Presence Saint Joseph, just a few miles north of work, and be seen in an average of 12 minutes, making for just a 21 minute span before I'm seen. Rush University Medical Center is also just a short drive from my office, but its average wait is 2 hours 2 minutes.

ER Wait Watcher also includes information on average time until sent home, percent left without being seen, time before admission, transfer time, average time patients with a broken bone had to wait to receive pain meds, and how many patients would "definitely recommend" the ER to others. Sixty-nine percent said they'd recommend Saint Joseph's, while 80 percent would recommend Northwestern. Is a slightly better experience worth an extra 30 minute wait?

Granted, the wait time estimates are based on averages, and aren't real-time estimates. However, the site does include a phone number for the ER to call to get a real-time estimate.

And granted, in a true emergency, I may have no choice in ER, or my ER choice may not matter — ambulances generally take patients to the closest ER, and the most emergent conditions are treated quickly, no matter the facility's average wait time.

However, for a condition that isn't life-threatening, I'd definitely the site useful. I've already made mental note that if I ever have a broken bone, I'll be heading to Norwegian American (where I'll receive pain meds in 46 minutes, 14 minutes under the national average) and not my usual choice of Rush UMC (where I'll wait a painful 1 hour 32 minutes for my pain relief).

Websites and apps like this take information that is already publicly available and make it understandable and useful. As the demand for transparent information about healthcare increases — as it likely will as consumers play a larger role in their healthcare decision-making — expect more tools like this to come to the aid of healthcare consumers. And that's a good thing.



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