The ear pain that struck Heidi Ruhe’s 6-year-old son on a Saturday night was so bad that Ruhe knew she couldn’t wait until the following Monday to take him to his pediatrician’s office.
At the same time, the Beecher woman wasn’t fond of the idea of waiting hours in the emergency room for her son to be seen. So she tried out a service recently launched at three of Ingalls Memorial Hospital’s urgent-care centers in the south suburbs.
Called InQuicker, the Web-based system allows patients to make appointments online or on a smart phone up to 12 hours in advance. If patients aren’t seen within 15 minutes of their scheduled appointment time, their $14.99 user fee is refunded.
Ruhe made an early appointment for her son, Lucas, at the Ingalls Family Care Center in Flossmoor on the morning of Feb. 13. Within five minutes of their arrival, Lucas was in an exam room with a doctor who diagnosed him with an ear infection.
“The whole thing was a snap,” Ruhe said. “As a mom with young kids, you never know when you’re going to need to see a doctor for an emergency. . . . The certainty of knowing we would be seen in a certain window of time was a great comfort to us.”
Ingalls launched InQuicker at its urgent care centers in Flossmoor, Tinley Park and Calumet City in December — the first hospital system in Illinois to subscribe to the service. A handful of hospitals in California, Florida and six other states also use InQuicker.
Debra Vanschepen, director of the Flossmoor Family Care Center, said the service allows the hospital to better manage patient flow, while saving patients a two- or three-hour wait in the waiting room.
“We’re able to open up appointments that link up with times that we’re less busy,” she said.
She added that InQuicker “doesn’t let people bump in line ahead of higher-acuity patients. It holds their place in line at home, so they don’t have to wait in the emergency room.”
The service is designed for low-grade emergencies, like fever, flu and bronchitis. A triage nurse reviews appointments made through InQuicker to ensure that patients with more serious conditions are instructed to go to the emergency room immediately, Vanschepen said.
And no, Vanschepen said, a service like this doesn’t encourage people to use the emergency room when they don’t need to, as some critics contend.
“These are people who absolutely need to see a doctor today but just don’t have access to their regular doctor,” she said. “A lot of our business is in the evening and on weekends.”
InQuicker isn’t the only service helping Chicago-area residents take the waiting out of doctor’s office and emergency-room visits.
Another web-based tool called MedWaitTime sends patients e-mail and text alerts if their doctor is running behind schedule, so they can come in at a later time. MedWaitTime also provides approximate wait times for urgent-care centers and emergency rooms throughout the Chicago-area.
There’s no fee for patients to use the service, though doctors and hospitals pay to subscribe.
MedWaitTime founder Dr. Vishal Mehta, who is a practicing orthopedic surgeon in the far west suburbs, said services like his are expanding rapidly, as providers look for ways to address inefficiencies in the health-care system.
He cited a recent Press Ganey survey showing that the average wait time in American emergency rooms in 2009 was four hours, a figure that has been increasing since 2002.
“If you think about the burden on society of people just sitting around in ER waiting areas, it’s really quite remarkable,” Mehta said. “Anything we can do to combat that is huge.”