NORTH Shore patients needing emergency medical care will soon be able to check waiting times online before heading off to the ER.
Lions Gate Hospital is one of six hospitals in the Vancouver Coastal Health region taking part in a pilot project that will allow the public to log on and check wait times.
The ‘real time dashboard’, set to go live in February, will update every five minutes. It’ll include wait times in emergency departments at St. Paul’s Hospital downtown, UBC, Vancouver General and Mt. St. Joseph’s as well as Lions Gate hospitals.
The website will show “average” wait times at the emergency department as well as how long nine out of ten people have to wait to see a doctor. It will also show whether wait times at that moment are heading up or down, as well as the locations of nearby walk-in clinics.
Clay Adams, vice-president of communications for Vancouver Coastal Health, compared it to online sites showing border wait times.
For the health authority, there are two main goals of the project. By allowing people to check wait times, administrators hope to smooth out some of the peaks and valleys in ER use that may see some departments overloaded while other hospitals aren’t. Officials also hope the forewarning will help moderate the public’s expectations.
The project comes at a time of increasing emergency department use across the province.
In the last fiscal year, there were about 53,700 visits to Lions Gate’s ER. That’s an increase of about 30 per cent in the past six years, said Adams. This year the trend is continuing. “They’re telling me we’re up two per cent,” over last year, in the number of ER visits, said Adams. Both an increasing and aging population are thought to be driving that spike.
Wait times at different ERs in the region can vary considerably, even on an hourly basis
“Often it’s just fluke,” said Dr. Alec Ritchie, an emergency room doctor at Lions Gate Hospital. “It could be that Vancouver General’s having a bad day.”
Generally, waiting times at Lions Gate’s ER fall into the middle range of highs and lows across the region.
Both Ritchie and Adams stress numbers on the online site won’t affect the triage that takes place in hospital emergency rooms. That system — which assigns patients a code depending on the seriousness of their symptoms — will still see people in more acute medical crises moved to the front of the line, while those with less serious problems will have to wait longer.
Those with immediate medical emergencies shouldn’t even think about the dashboard, said Adams.
“If you’re having a heart attack, don’t log on. Phone 9-1-1.”
The system is designed to be helpful for people in less immediate situations, who might have a broken finger or are experiencing abdominal pain, for instance.
The dashboard — developed by Dr. Eric Grafstein, head of emergency rooms for Vancouver Coastal Health —was originally developed to provide “real time” information about ER loads to emergency room staff themselves and to ambulance attendants. Adams said people are often surprised to discover that information isn’t already available in the health system.
Emergency staff and ambulance crews will have access to more detailed versions of the public site when it is launched.
The website cost about $300,000 to develop and is expected to cost between $20,000 and $25,000 a year to operate.
Similar websites operate in several cities in the U.S. A version of the site spearheaded by Grafstein’s former colleague Dr. Grant Innis is also operated in Calgary and Edmonton.
“They’ve had a lot of web traffic to it,” said Adams.
Adams acknowledged there have been concerns voiced about the dashboard. Some people fear it will drive up ER traffic to their normally quiet local emergency departments or that older people who aren’t Internet savvy will be at a disadvantage.
Others fear it could lead to a general increase in visits.
Ritchie said he doesn’t think the last concern is likely. Most people will avoid ERs if they can, he said. “Emergency departments are not nice places to be particularly… It’s a stressful, busy, active place.”
The dashboard is the latest in a series of projects aimed at managing ER wait times.
For the past five years, Lions Gate and other hospitals in the region have been experimenting with a system that pays health facilities a sum of money for every patient they treat within a set period of time. Under the program, hospitals are rewarded for getting patients in and out of ER within certain time limits. Other changes have involved streamlining the admitting process in the emergency department and making sure cleaning staff are always available so that beds can be quickly made ready for a doctor to examine the next patient.
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