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Arm patients with info

May 26, 2012

IF you can’t avoid the hospital emergency room altogether, the next best thing is knowing what to expect once you get there. Better information, generally, makes for better healthcare. Patients in Kitchener are already able to find out how long the wait time is at the emergency room of a local hospital. Some in Toronto will soon have the same real-time information about their local hospital emergency rooms….

So why isn’t emergency room wait-time information available in Ottawa? The Ottawa Hospital cites several reasons for deciding to take a wait-and-see approach to the new technology, but it is difficult not to conclude that among those reasons is it doesn’t trust patients to use the information wisely. In fact, The Ottawa Hospital has technology available on its website to post emergency room wait times, but has decided not to do so for now. Its rationale … includes the fact that patients are triaged when they enter a hospital emergency room, so wait times are very much dependent on how serious a patient’s injury or illness is.

The hospital is concerned that online information could act as a deterrent to some who should be seeking medical help. The hospital also worries that it would be difficult to make sure the information was accurate. A six-hour wait … might only apply to patients with less severe needs but could also become longer if ambulances suddenly arrived with car accident victims. Those are valid concerns. Hospital emergency rooms are quickly changing organisms that are … unpredictable….

But that does not justify keeping available information from patients. Surely the data can be presented in a way that patients will appreciate these limitations.

Patients are capable of understanding the fluid nature of wait times in emergency rooms, as well as the fact that patients are triaged and that those with less urgent needs will wait longer to see a doctor. To conclude that patients might make bad choices with the information or might not understand it fully is patronising. Anyone who has waited in an emergency room knows that information about the expected wait, even if that is subject to change, would make it easier to bear. In fact …

people are more likely to go to the emergency room if they are armed with some information about how long they will likely have to be there. Being secretive is more likely to frustrate patients. It also reinforces a dated ‘doctor knows best’ attitude toward healthcare. Letting patients be part of the process by giving them as much information as possible will be better for their health and the health of the system.—(May 23)