STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Next time you face an hours long wait for help in the emergency room, consider this - you could've made an appointment.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
There's a "Seinfeld" riff somewhere in there about how making an appointment at the emergency room doesn't match up well with the purpose of an emergency room. But some hospitals now encourage you to make appointments online and wait at home until it's your turn.
INSKEEP: Anna Gorman, of Kaiser Health News, visited one such hospital in Los Angeles.
ANNA GORMAN, BYLINE: Michael Granillo is in the emergency room at Northridge Hospital Medical Center. His legs are numb and there's a sharp pain in his back that keeps getting worse. This is his fourth visit to the ER in a week. The last three times he left without seeing a doctor.
MICHAEL GRANILLO: I was getting irritated because it was so crowded and I didn't have the patience to sit and wait. I was in so much pain and I wanted to be taking care of now. And then and it wasn't happening so I got ticked off and went home.
GORMAN: This time though, things are different. When the 34-year-old Granillo showed up at the ER, the staff was waiting for him. Granillo's wife Sonya used a new online service to make an appointment.
SONYA GRANILLO: The minute I told her who he was and why we're here, she opened the door - let him in. That was a relief on me because I thought he was going to say let's go, let's go, I can't wait.
GORMAN: Hospitals around the country are competing for newly-insured patients. That means cutting ER wait times to make visits less frustrating. Northridge and its parent company Dignity Health started offering online appointments last summer. Since then, more than 22,000 patients have reserved spots at emergency rooms in California, Arizona and Nevada. Dignity Health hospitals are getting the word out, with billboards, web ads and video spots.
(SOUNDBITE OF DIGNITY HEALTH ADVERTISEMENT)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: You told us emergency room wait times were longer than you expected. So we found an unexpected solution - a way for you to wait at home, with our online ER waiting service.
GORMAN: To make an appointment, you get on your phone or computer and pick a time slot - think open table, but for a hospital instead of a restaurant. Then you explain what's wrong and check a box saying you can wait for care. It's designed for injuries or illnesses that are not life-threatening - say an ankle sprain or a high fever. Northridge ER Chief Dr. Stephen Jones says it's not for emergencies like chest pain or trouble breathing.
STEPHEN JONES: If they have those signs or symptoms, they should pick up the phone and dial 911.
GORMAN: But if a patient can make an appointment, it shouldn't be at an ER, according to Doctor Del Morris. He's the president of the California Academy of Family Physicians.
DEL MORRIS: Emergency rooms are the most expensive places to obtain care. It's expensive for hospitals to run emergency rooms and they charge accordingly.
GORMAN: He says people with non-life-threatening conditions should make an appointment to see their doctor instead of going to the emergency room.
MORRIS: We're in a crisis right now with a shortage of access towards primary care. I think that this emergency room is probably taking advantage of that need.
GORMAN: Northridge ER Dr. Jones says some people feel they don't have a choice. For example, Michael Granillo doesn't have a regular doctor and he doesn't know if there's an urgent care center near him. Jones acknowledges that the ER is often not an ideal option.
JONES: Well, I think this represents a reasonable alternative to patients who are concerned that they may have an emergency condition.
GORMAN: Back in the ER, Granillo grimaces as he tries to get comfortable. His wife sits nervously beside him. Dr. Jones waits with them for the results of a CT scan.
JONES: How are you feeling? Do you need more pain medicine?
M. GRANILLO: It's just my back when I was stretching out. She had me stretching like that, it hurt my stomach.
JONES: Yeah, you have to lay out flat like that, so sometimes the positioning isn't comfortable. So we'll get some more morphine for that pain.
GORMAN: The scan results are worse than expected. Granillo has lymphoma - a type of cancer. Jones says Sonya was right to insist her husband come in for care.
JONES: She was really worried about his condition and rightfully so.
GORMAN: Sonya says if she hadn't made an appointment, her husband still might not know about his diagnosis.
S. GRANILLO: Over five days I've been trying to get him into the ER and that was my last resort. And it worked.
GORMAN: Granillo's doctors plan to begin treatment immediately and his family is optimistic. For NPR News, I'm Anna Gorman in Los Angeles.
INSKEEP: She's with our partner Kaiser Health News, which is a nonprofit news service.
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