When you think about sitting in an emergency room, in some cases the wait can feel like an eternity.
“You have folks that have to come in who are really, really sick and you want them to be seen but you don’t necessarily want to sit amongst them and get sick yourself,” said Candi Sturgell, who uses an ER Appointment System.
Sturgell is a big fan of "ER Express" which is one of a growing number of companies hospitals now use to allow patients to call in advance and make an ER appointment. When Sturgell walked into the ER, they took her right back.
The appointments are the most recent change taking place in emergency rooms trying to cope with a growing number of patients. In the last decade, the number of emergency department visits has increased 32 percent and is expected to double again over the next 10 years.
“For those patients who are sick but don’t have a life-threatening illness, you’re just getting to hold your place in line,” said Sahil Patel with ER Express.
Not everyone is on board. Dr. Dino Rumoro is a Fellow with the American College of Emergency Physicians. He's concerned patients will be confused.
“An emergent condition is an emergent condition and it’s not subject to booking an appointment. It means you need to be seen right away,” explained Rumoro.
Rumoro says we're blurring the real intent of an ER by giving patients the impression they have to book ahead.
“It seems more like we’re providing a specialty service at that point, and uh, or a privileged service, and the emergency departments are set up to be there for patients whenever they feel they have a true emergency,” Rumoro added.
Companies behind the appointment idea say there are disclaimers on the sites to be sure those with urgent issues get immediate help.
“Our software reads the symptoms the patient puts in and if they type in something like chest pain or bleeding or numbness, it’ll actually stop them, block them and say based on what you told us you need to call 911,” said Patel.
And doctors in the hospitals already using the appointment system says it actually allows them to improve the care they give.
“We know ahead of time what they’re coming for, we have their charts ready,” said Garcia.
Sturgell says when she used the service the last time, she was thrilled. The only people who weren't were those who watched as she walked right in to be seen.
Sturgell said, "They did look like 'What was going on? Why are they getting this VIP treatment?'"
Those who support this type service say it helps hospitals guide patients away from their traditionally heavy hours, like 4pm to 6pm, toward appointments for times when the ER is usually slower.
Channel 4 spoke with a representative from ER Express. We're told the company is now operating in six cities, including Pensacola, Florida, and is hoping to expand to Northeast Florida in the future.
Other ER appointment services: