ER Wait Times On Display

21 Jun

The increasingly rapid pace of life we all enjoy thanks to the seemingly endless stream of technology has at least one notable side effect: growing impatience. “We want what we want and we want it now!” has never been a more true mantra. It seems, however, that as long as we are informed about the wait, we are able to find a little bit more patience within ourselves.

For instance, anyone who’s been to Walt Disney World in the last decade knows that they have signs up around the park telling you how long you can expect to wait to ride a particular ride. I’m not sure what they may do these days–it’s been a while since I was last in Orlando–but I do know that they used to have signs that weren’t updated. That is, there would be a hand-painted sign reading something along the lines of “Your expected wait from this point in line is 30 minutes.” Now, one of the clever psychological  tricks was that your wait was never expected to be 30 minutes from that point. The sign instilled in you the expectation that it would take 30 minutes, so that when it only took 22, you’d find yourself pleasantly surprised.

We also have the “estimated hold time” that we are updated about when we call a customer service department, the arrival and departure boards at train stations and airports, and–at least in my neck of the woods–the “real-time” signs at bus stops that tell you when each of the next buses on a particular route will be arriving at your stop. This last example has been particularly helpful in my opinion, helping me know when to head to the bus stop, when to take one bus rather than another, and when to just walk to my destination because it will probably be quicker.

But there are other areas of life where wait times aren’t really announced. For example, if you go out to eat at a restaurant, you might be told “Your food should be out shortly,” but that’s not the same thing as saying “Your food will be table side in 3 minutes.” Similarly, though they are mentioned as a drawback of a “socialized” health care system, and even studied by health services researchers, wait times to receive health care are not reported to the patients who seek them. As a result, you are likely to have heard a story from a friend or family member who spent 8 to 10 hours in the emergency room just to get seen. Often times, the person has gone in for something that doesn’t warrant treatment in the emergency room–an urgent care center might be just fine, or the person could even wait until the next day to call their regular physician–but they stay in the ER and grow impatient and resentful. If they knew how long it would take, maybe they would opt to leave and seek care elsewhere, or maybe they would at least find themselves more patient with an understanding of how long they were going to be there. It’s the unknown that causes us humans such frustration.

Well, it turns out that some emergency rooms are announcing their wait time estimates to patients online, over the phone, and by text message. Obviously that leaves the non-tech-savvy in the dark, but it’s a step in the right direction. The next logical question is how this practice will affect patient satisfaction. My hunch is that patients who visit ERs who are transparent about their current wait times will be more satisfied than patients who, being uninformed, feel like they are left endlessly waiting for their turn to see the doctor. We have the technology, after all, we might as well use it.


Posted by on June 21, 2010 in Uncategorized


2 responses to “ER Wait Times On Display

  1. Marcia Noyes

    June 21, 2010 at 9:20 pm

    Brad, excellent post. Personally, I'm much less patient when I've not been told how long I'm expected to wait, versus being told that the wait could be some time. Professionally, I find that true, as well. iTriage ( was the first smartphone app to push out ER Wait times. And shortly after doing so, we began hearing from end-users who actually directed EMTs to hospitals with shorter wait times. While that isn't advised for those with symptoms like chest pain, these particular patients had illnesses that wouldn't wait until morning.The hospitals that are making this wait time more transparent are really getting a leg up on their competitors. People want information, when they want and wherever they are, and that's why iTriage has been so successful in engaging healthcare consumers with the medical providers who long to serve them.Marcia Noyes, Director of Marketing/PRHealthagen — developer of iTriage

  2. David WIlliams

    June 22, 2010 at 3:54 am

    Wait times are a tricky thing. Yes the Disney example is clever, but by now everyone knows it's just expectations management. When the time says 30 minutes and it's really 10 we know they're screwing with us. When it's 30 (or 40!) we're really mad.ER wait times really can't be determined independent of someone's condition. Meanwhile (as I've discussed recently) the idea of keeping people posted on wait times at their doctor's office is one I don't care for.


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