How to Reduce Emergency-Room Wait Times

The American health-care industry is often accused of placing profits over people's care. But the profit motive may help alleviate at least one perennial issue: slow service in the emergency room. Patients sit for an average of 37 minutes—twice the federally recommended goal—before seeing a physician, according to a 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office. But while most industry experts predict longer delays as millions of newly insured people join the market, some hospitals are solving the problem—slashing wait times in an effort to win the new business.

The fixes are relatively simple—bedside check-in, online reservations, a fast track for common procedures like stitches. It's the marketing that's getting elaborate. Health centers in Virginia, Georgia, and Indiana are offering text-message updates and door-to-door trip planners (92 minutes for a broken arm, for instance), while counterparts in Maryland are utilizing mass mailings and highway billboards to boast about quick service.

Perhaps the efforts seem crass. But the early results—waits of just 14 minutes at one Maryland hospital—are hard to fault. Emergency fixes have rarely been performed so urgently.