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Billboards keep DeTar's ER ticking

By Keldy Ortiz
Jan. 5, 2013 at 10:04 p.m.
Updated Jan. 5, 2013 at 7:06 p.m.

On Navarro Street, a billboard advertises emergency room wait times. The sign is one of three that DeTar Healthcare System has in Victoria.

Jo Lynn Martinez is a frequent visitor to the emergency room. That's because she is usually taking her arthritis-stricken mother to a doctor after regular office hours.

Martinez takes her mother to DeTar Hospital North and rarely waits long to see someone. Not far from the hospital is an electronic billboard that posts the average wait times. Martinez said she never pays attention to the sign, but she does see it.

At DeTar Healthcare System, officials believe helping every patient who comes to the emergency room is a priority. Since April 2011, three billboards have advertised wait times to let patients know that staying in the emergency room does not have to be a long wait.

"I never look at the times; I determine by experience," said Martinez, who brought her mother to the ER five to six times last year. "We always seem to go in right away. They don't make her wait often."

Other hospital administrators and emergency room directors believe a patient seeing a doctor within 30 minutes can be difficult. But in most cases, a patient's circumstance - whether a victim of a gunshot wound or a dog bite - can dictate whether the wait time is long or short.

"You can't just put people in a queue. Hospitals don't want patients sitting in waiting rooms," said Donald Jenkins, a trauma medical director at Saint Marys Hospital in Rochester, Minn. "At some smaller hospitals, (staff members) could be at their capacity."

At Saint Marys Hospital, Jenkins said patients are placed in triage and sorted by who needs to be seen first. It's a tool that many hospitals use, but not many patients accept it.

"You could be the first person there, but you could be the fourth or fifth person seen," he said.

In the most recent report done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average wait time in U.S. hospitals is about one hour.

DeTar Healthcare System CEO William Blanchard said the goal of the billboards is a pledge made to patients to see a physician within 30 minutes or less. The hospital has achieved its goal, but, at times, the billboard posts a wait time of up to 45 minutes.

"People are more likely to see you if they know treating you is a priority," he said. "It's a consumer tool."

Blanchard said wait times on the billboards are determined from the time when patients are registered in the emergency room to the time when they are seen by a physician. Once that happens, the time is averaged and reflects the past two hours. At DeTar Healthcare System, 39,000 patients were seen in 2012. Victoria's population is about 63,100.

Joy Siringer, nurse and director of the emergency room at DeTar Healthcare System, said the billboard does not impose pressure to treat more patients in a timely matter. She said the department is staffed to handle as many patients as required.

"Our nurses are dedicated to those patients," she said. "From the time they walk in, they are informed what's going to happen."

College Station Medical Center spokesman Joe Brown said the hospital also has invested in a billboard with wait times posted. Unlike DeTar Healthcare System, Brown said he realizes the billboard puts a burden on the staff to see patients quickly.

"It holds our feet to the fire because, when you make a promise, your credibility is on the line," Brown said. "It's a lot of pressure."

Brown also said Victoria is unlike College Station, which has a population of about 95,100, because there are fewer hospitals in the area.

At Citizens Medical Center, nurse manager Jeff Payne said that while DeTar's billboards are a marketing gimmick, the wait time pledge is a good goal. Maintaining the pledge, he said, is not really ideal.

"There are times you can do that, but there are times you can't," Payne said. "That goal is good, but if you have 20 patients at one time, how can you meet that goal?"

Payne said that, internally, hospitals have goals they set to treat patients. He does agree that everyone needs to be seen quickly.

Some hospital staff members admit their wait times do need to be cut shorter.

In Warwick, R.I., with a population of more than 82,000, Kent Hospital had a longer-than-expected wait time. At times, the average wait was almost two hours.

After realizing the problem, the hospital created a rapid assessment area.

Peter Graves, chief of the department of emergency medicine at Kent Hospital, said the assessment area has dramatically reduced wait times to between 20 and 25 minutes. While he believes the hospital has not thought about posting wait times outside the hospital, he does believe every patient is a priority.

"It's helpful. Is it a form of advertising? Sure," he said. "I think every patient wants the best medical care, but they want it in a timely fashion."

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