November 25th, 2014
Waterloo Region Record
By Johanna Weidner
KITCHENER — One in five visits to Canadian emergency departments is for minor medical conditions that could be treated in a doctor’s office or clinic, according to a new report.
While many emergency units are busy treating colds, sore throats, earaches and other complaints that could be handled elsewhere, St. Mary’s General Hospital has seen a drop in the number of visits by healthier patients thanks to its innovative online clock showing emergency room wait times.
“What we found was there were some patients who just decided not to come,” said hospital president Don Shilton.
Those less urgent patients instead go to a family doctor or urgent care clinic — a more appropriate setting for minor conditions as pointed out by the study recently released by the Canadian Institute for Health Information.
“They still sought care,” Shilton said. “I think that’s the kind of ideal situation.”
That frees up emergency room staff to see patients who are sicker, sooner, he said.
According to the report, young children had the highest rate of emergency room visits for conditions that could be treated elsewhere — with upper respiratory and ear infections among the top reasons. People who live in rural areas are also more likely to go to an emergency department.
More than 1.4 million visits to Canadian emergency departments were for minor medical complaints in 2013/14.
When St. Mary’s launched the real-time wait clock, it expected those less-ill patients would hold off or come immediately depending on the current and projected wait times. But what happened was a 12 per cent reduction in the volume of less sick patients, a trend that continues more than two years after the clock went live.
“We didn’t anticipate that was going to happen,” Shilton said.
The worry about patients who were quite sick postponing a visit because of long waits proved unfounded. The site makes it clear that people who are in need of serious medical attention should go to emergency as soon as possible.
“We’re still seeing the same volumes of the critically ill,” Shilton said.
St. Mary’s online wait clock, developed with local tech company Oculys, was given a national award earlier this month from the Information Technology Association of Canada for being one of the six most innovative projects of 2014. It was the first for a hospital in Ontario.
St. Mary’s website is popular, getting 4,000 to 5,000 hits a month — about the same number of people who come into their emergency department monthly.
Another benefit is patients know how long they’ll be waiting, with the website boasting 90 per cent accuracy. That reduces frustration for both patients and staff, Shilton said.
“It really helps people plan their visit to emergency.”
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