A new Web-based tool seeks to help patients spend less time in the waiting room before seeing their doctor. The application, called MedWaitTime, allows patients to check before their appointment whether their doctor is running late, akin to getting a flight-status update before going to the airport.
Patients can access the site, medwaittime.com, up to two hours ahead of their appointment. If the doctor is running late, patients can be instructed to arrive later than their scheduled appointment.
Patients can also enter their cellphone number into the system for alerts through text messaging.
Launched last week with 10 Chicago-area doctors, the idea is the brainchild of Vishal Mehta, an orthopedic surgeon who felt guilty about routinely running behind and making his patients sit in the waiting room for up to an hour or more.
"Patients will say they ran every yellow light on the way there [to the office], then they sat and waited," said Dr. Mehta. "Medicine is now a service industry and we have to keep our patients happy."
Waiting times in emergency rooms have increased "in rather dramatic fashion" in recent years, and it appears that waits to see primary-care physicians are also increasing, according to Andrew Wilper, a physician at the University of Washington School of Medicine who conducts research on wait times.
Dr. Wilper, who isn't involved with MedWaitTime, said the idea of reducing patient wait times through technology is "reasonable," but cautions that "it's not clear to me it would solve the bigger underlying problems" of there being more patients and fewer resources.
The 35-year-old Dr. Mehta founded Medical Wait Time LLC and is funding the project along with two partners. They have spent more than $200,000 developing and testing the software. They plan to charge $50 a month per doctor and $300 a month for each hospital department that uses the service.
The company has rolled out the first phase, involving 10 doctors who practice different types of medicine, such as podiatry and family medicine. Dr. Mehta plans to offer an iPhone app and add wait times for urgent-care facilities like emergency rooms.
This week, he expects a major physical-therapy chain and two hospital systems to start participating as well. Once launched, patients will be able
to search by ZIP Code the wait times at emergency-care facilities in their area before they decide where to go.
One challenge: The system isn't automated. Office staff must manually update the waiting-time information that patients see.
Another issue is whether patients—especially older ones who tend to need more medical care —have access to the Internet, said Dr. Wilper. A December 2009 survey found that only 38% of people 65 and older report using the Internet, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, a nonprofit research organization that tracks digital trends.
Dr. Mehta said many of his patients have Internet access but some age 60 and up don't. Those patients can still elect to get updates by cellphone, he said.
For doctors, a concern may be that telling patients to delay showing up leads to some arriving late, which would then throw off the doctor's schedule. Dr. Mehta said doctors can still leave themselves a few minutes of cushion.
Reducing time spent in the waiting room matters to Lee Nelson, one of Dr. Mehta's patients. In order to get to his recent visit earlier this month, Mr. Nelson had to leave a business meeting. But when he arrived, he discovered Dr. Mehta was running 20 minutes late. When Dr. Mehta told him about the MedWaitTime check-in system that would soon be available, Mr. Nelson thought, "Boy, that would have been perfect this morning."