Reality Check On Those ER Wait-Time Ads: '19 Minutes' Could Mean 90

Guest Contributor

It was just one of those stupid things. I was cutting the stems off of flowers, not really paying attention, and somehow managed to snip my knuckle along with the stems. The blood began to spew.

WBUR's Karen Shiffman and her injured finger. (Aayesha Siddiqui/WBUR)
Karen Shiffman and her injured finger. (Aayesha Siddiqui/WBUR)

I'm not one to panic. I calmly reached for some dish towels and applied pressure, then ran the gash under cold water. A red river flooded the sink. The dish towels soaked through, so I switched to bath towels. Finally, it dawned on me that the bleeding was not just going to stop and I might need some stitches.

I live right near the Longwood Medical Area, but theorized that if I went to one of the major hospitals down the street, I'd be in competition with people needing face transplants and end up waiting 12 hours. I recalled passing a billboard for Saint Elizabeth's in Brighton advertising how quick the waiting times were in its Emergency Department — under 20 minutes, if memory served. So I wrapped my bloodied hand in Bounty and a fresh bath towel, and drove 15 minutes or so to St. E's. The posted wait time on the billboard as I passed was 19 minutes.

At the hospital, I left my car with the valet, ran in to the emergency room, walked up to the desk and handed the receptionist my driver's license for identification. She asked me what had happened and I told her, then I sat down in the waiting room and struck up a conversation with a very terrified 7-year-old who had just taken a tumble on the playground. We compared boo-boos.

About half an hour later, a nurse brought me in to an exam room, took my temperature and blood pressure, and asked me to unwrap my hand. After he had a look at the gash, he handed me some fresh gauze wrapping and sent me back to wait. About half an hour after that, I was taken to another exam room where another nurse looked at my wound, then gave me more gauze and some paperwork to fill out.

A billboard that shows the emergency room wait time at St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in Brighton, Mass. (Carey Goldberg/WBUR)
A billboard that shows the emergency room wait time at St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in Brighton, Mass. (Carey Goldberg/WBUR)

"What's up with that billboard sign?" I asked her. "I thought I was going to be seen within 19 minutes."

She rolled her eyes and said, "Tell me about it. We get that all the time. It just means that you're going to get to the receptionist by then. Why don't you call and tell the marketing people that it's not true?"

Another half hour after that — so roughly 90 minutes in all after I arrived — a nurse practitioner fixed up my finger.

Everyone was nice. Everyone seemed to know what they were doing. It still was probably faster than if I'd gone to one of the hospitals down the street from my home. But that's not why I went there. I did get good care, but it strikes me that there's something missing here — like truth in advertising. I'm left with the feeling that they got me there under false pretenses.

Chris Murphy, spokesman for Steward Health Care System, which includes Saint E's, responds:

The ED wait time billboard at Saint Elizabeth’s measures a patient’s “door to room” time. That means it represents the time it will take for you to register, be triaged and put in a treatment room. This is a standard measure for hospital emergency departments. The wait time is calculated with data from the hospital’s IT system and tracks patients that have registered for treatment and are in the process of being treated. It updates every fifteen minutes, but if there is a sudden influx of patients it can take some time for the system to catch up. Also, patient acuity plays a major role in treatment time. As you would imagine, doctors and other clinicians treat patients with the highest acuity first. Someone that is showing signs of a heart attack, stroke, severe physical trauma, respiratory distress etc., will be treated by a clinician before someone with a cut on their finger.

Point taken. Also, Saint Elizabeth's is far from the only hospital to advertise brief waiting times. It has become a common hospital practice lately. Newton-Wellesley does it. Metro West. Many area hospitals include waiting times on their websites.

And perhaps for the hospitals, it makes sense to measure and advertise the "door to room" time. But for all the rest of us who live in real time, it may be good to know: Nineteen minutes doesn't really mean 19 minutes.

Karen Shiffman is the executive producer of WBUR's On Point with Tom Ashbrook. She would like to thank CommonHealth's Carey Goldberg for typing this up for her.

This program aired on May 7, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.


More from WBUR

Listen Live