Patients, Please: Hospitals Going Online to Cure Wait-Time Problems

In 2009, President Obama signed the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, which set aside $20 billion dollars to help hospitals and private practices make the switch from paper to electronic medical records (EMRs). According to a recent Forbes article, however, only 37 percent of hospitals are in the final three stages of this seven-step process; six percent haven’t converted even the most basic information.

Some hospitals are taking an alternate route, providing information directly to patients via online services, such as wait-time lists, payment portals and even text messages. But with EMR adoption lagging, can these kinds of consumer-facing services really cure healthcare ills?

Wait and See

In Providence, R.I., Our Lady of Fatima hospital has taken wait times online: When patients visit the hospital’s official website, they’re told approximately how long the wait will be in the Fatima emergency room, helping them to decide whether the trip is worth it. At Weiss Memorial in Chicago, patients can quickly pay their hospital bills online with credit or debit cards. And Hudson Valley Hospital Center in New York state is rolling out a new web portal that allows patients to access portions of their medical records and check on upcoming appointments.

U.S. hospitals may also want to take a cue from their northern cousins; in the province of Alberta, Canada, for example, Alberta Health Services maintains online wait lists for emergency rooms at all of the major hospitals — and the lists are updated every two minutes. And as reported by the Montreal Gazette, the Montreal Children’s Hospital is rolling out a text-messaging program. Once a child has been evaluated by a triage nurse, parents can submit their telephone number and their child’s healthcare number in order to receive text messages with status updates every five minutes. Ideally, the messages should cut down on overcrowding in the waiting room and limit cross-contamination among sick children.

Emergent Issues

ABC News reported that emergency-room wait times in the United States are getting longer, and doctors warn that an overburdened health system is now clogging up the ER. It stands to reason, then, that online alternatives should provide at least some relief. Yet many doctors and hospitals are hesitant to adopt the new systems. Why?

One problem is an increase in physicians’ workloads. Jonathan Bauer, CIO of Somerset Hospital, makes the case in a Becker’s Hospital Review article (reporting on a 2013 Datamark roundtable) that EMRs pose a challenge for doctors not familiar with the system or comfortable with computers, since the amount of data entry required can take time away from patient care.

Theron Pappas of Holy Family Health argues that “one way of improving the user experience is asking patients to fill in information themselves,” but the issue of privacy comes into play, as noted by William R. Hersh in his paper The Electronic Medical Record: Promises and Problems.

Hersh points to both inappropriate access and unnecessary duplication of records as potential privacy issues for EMRs. And some problems lie outside provider control — consider the recent Heartbleed bug, which, according to Modern Healthcare, could affect provider websites, email services and patient portals.

Online or Offline?

Despite privacy and access concerns, hospitals can’t afford to ignore its digital future. Going online, even if it just means reporting wait times or offering payment services, can go a long way toward limiting patient frustration and ensuring ER doctors treat those who need it most.

For hospitals and other enterprise health agencies, the road to online healthcare starts with the right web host, one that provides robust security for online portals and speed of access for patient queries. Moving forward, hospitals will be best served by taking small steps — perhaps a wait-time counter, then a text-message program and eventually limited access to medical records.

Although serving patients online won’t cure the healthcare system overnight, it’s a step in the right direction; start small, take it slow and consider a prescription based on other successful online efforts.

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