Wait time software puts power in patients’ hands

Patients are often frustrated by lengthy emergency department wait times. More frustrating yet is not having any idea how long the wait will be.  At St. Mary’s General Hospital  in Kitchener, providing access to information could mean an improvement in patient satisfaction, thanks to a sophisticated website application that lets patients know how long their wait will be before even leaving their home.

Introduced in April 2012, St. Mary’s was the first hospital in Ontario to provide patients with access to  real-time information designed to help deliver the right care, in the right place, at the right time.

“When we began developing this application, our goal was to improve transparency and communication by answering the number one question we hear in the emergency department, which is: how long is the wait?” says St. Mary’s president Don Shilton. “However, when we did a little more research, including focus groups with patients and visitors, we realized that we had a huge opportunity to truly empower patients to make better informed decisions about when and where they seek care – and that by engaging them, we may actually be able to improve both the patient experience, and the department’s wait times.”

Thirty per cent of patients treated in St. Mary’s emergency department are there for non-emergency care. They may not have a family doctor, they may not have easy or fast access to primary care, or they may simply not be aware of the other options they have to get care.  The hospital’s real-time reporting system works to provide not only accurate wait times, but also a ‘big picture’ of activity in the department (the number of patients currently waiting and the number of patients currently being treated) and a list of alternatives to the emergency department, such as Telehealth Ontario and local walk-in clinics.

St. Mary’s hopes that in giving patients and families more information, those with non-urgent or less urgent needs  will use the tool to better decide where and when to seek care. If some patients choose to go to their family doctor or a walk-in clinic instead of the emergency department, or choose to come when it’s a little quieter, the hospital may see an overall improvement in wait times.

The real-time tool is specifically designed for people with semi-urgent or non-urgent medical conditions who don’t require immediate care. The website prominently directs people with life or limb threatening illness or injuries to call 911 or go to their closest emergency department.

Dr. Bob Wickett, Chief of Emergency Medicine at St. Mary’s agrees that patients benefit from the new software. “This website allows patients to have a look behind the scenes so they can make decisions about where and when to seek care,” says Dr. Wickett.

Developed by Oculys, a health informatics firm located in the Waterloo region, the tool has an 88 per cent accuracy rate – something that patients have expressed satisfaction with. “We’ve had patients tell us that they were better prepared when they came to the emergency department because they knew in advance what to expect,” says Beth Corbeil, Registered Nurse at St. Mary’s.

While at first hesitant, staff in the emergency department are now embracing the tool, thanks to the many benefits it provides – including enhanced communication between patients and staff. “It’s nice to have a tool that helps us communicate with our patients and manage their expectations. In the past, people would be upset if we couldn’t give them an estimate, good, bad or otherwise,” says Corbeil, “Be it a short wait or a long wait, they just wanted to know.”

“We are optimistic that by providing patients with accurate, real-time information, we can improve the experience they have at St. Mary’s – or, improve their experience with the health care system by helping them find the right care, in the right place, at the right time,” she says.

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