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Tennessee Hospital Hopes Visible Wait Time Helps ER Demand

MEMPHIS, Tenn. - The Methodist University Hospital emergency room was one crowded and busy place one Saturday evening, as patients waited an average of up to 52 minutes to see a health care provider.

But there were better options available -- within the Methodist system -- for anyone seeking emergency-room help. At Methodist North, the average wait was just 14 minutes, and at Le Bonheur Methodist Germantown, it was a mere seven minutes.

With emergency-room visits rapidly increasing both nationally and locally, hospitals and firms such as Methodist Healthcare are looking for ways to manage the load. Methodist last week announced it is posting online the average emergency-room waiting times at four of its hospitals.

The postings, available at methodisthealth.org/er, should help incoming patients and paramedics decide which hospital to use, Methodist officials say.

"A long time ago, we decided that although our time was valuable, our patients' time was as valuable as ours," said Marty Carr, medical director of emergency services for Methodist Hospitals.

The new service comes amid a surge in ER visits across the nation.

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that emergency visits increased at a rate twice that of population growth in the U.S. between 1997 and 2007. Medicaid patients accounted for a large portion of the increase, and many of them come in with increasingly serious conditions.

The demand for emergency-room service likely has risen even faster since the late 2008 onset of the deep recession, authors of the report state. An estimated 5.8 million Americans became uninsured during the record job losses of 2008 and 2009.

Adding to the congestion is a recent decline in the number of ERs across the nation. In 2007 there were 3,925 emergency departments in the U.S., down from 4,114 a decade earlier.

Those trends are reflected in the crowded ERs of many hospitals in the Memphis area and beyond.

Paramedics with the Memphis Fire Department now are transporting some 75,000 patients to local emergency rooms annually. Often, there are no beds or health-care providers available when the ambulances arrive, officials say.

"It's a major problem here," said Memphis Deputy Fire Chief Gary Ludwig. "I'll have an ambulance waiting two to three hours sometimes to drop off a patient."



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