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Kennedy: Hospital billboards tout speedy service

Kennedy: Hospital billboards tout speedy service

Florida highways sport messages

I marveled last week at the billboards along Florida highways touting quick service at hospital emergency rooms.

“6 minutes,” said one digital readout of the real-time ER wait; “8 minutes,” said another.

The billboards are nothing new, I discovered, and the Sunshine State isn’t alone in having them.

In fact, they began popping up in enough states over the past decade that the American College of Emergency Physicians published an “information paper” in 2012 that sought to evaluate their pros and cons. (Pro: They’re an effective marketing tool. Con: They may unintentionally increase emergency room visits.)

We haven’t seen the billboards here, but Albany-based St. Peter’s Health Partners dipped a toe in the water by introducing “Skip the Wait” at its five regional urgent-care centers.

Such centers offer a level a care a step removed from emergency rooms. You sprained an ankle on a weekend hike? An urgent-care center could treat it. You fell while painting the eaves and slammed your head on the walkway? You’d better go to the hospital ER.

St. Peter’s centers, affiliated with the regional hospital network, offer illness and injury care seven days a week on a walk-in basis.

With “Skip the Wait,” real-time estimates of the next available appointment are provided for each of the centers. Prospective patients can choose the time and location that fits their needs, and book the appointment online, shortening their time in the waiting room.

People “hate the idea of walk-in and not knowing how long the wait is,” says Pam Williams, CEO of St. Peter’s Health Partners Medical Associates, the affiliated multi-specialty physician group.

The initiative first surfaced 18 months ago, but has been actively promoted for the last five or six months. Williams said about 20 percent of urgent-care patients now use the option, indicating it is “pretty popular.”

Times are continually updated, feeding directly off patient-scheduling software.

“Skip the Wait” isn’t unique — a Missouri health-care system advertises a similar service as “Save My Spot” — and start-ups and established companies alike have developed software products to serve as the backbone. One even is working with Alexa devices to have the virtual assistant do the booking.

Williams sees “Skip the Wait” as a sign of the times. “It’s the way people want to interact,” she said.

Indeed, consultant Accenture says that just about every consumer is a digital one today — different only in adoption “intensity.”

But it says the health-care industry “still lags in digital sophistication,” opining in a 2016 report that “providers need to raise their game — and fast.”

According to company, health-care consumers in outpatient settings “behave more like retail shoppers,” valuing choice, convenience and customer experience.

But if they can be satisfied, “digitally intense patients are not only more loyal; they’re also more valuable,” boosting hospital margins by as much as 50 percent, Accenture says.

Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected]

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