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More ERs post wait times via text, online billboards

Hopefully you haven't been or aren't headed to the ER for any medical emergencies anytime soon. But, if you're curious to see how long the wait time will be for care, some hospitals have started advertising that -- via text messages or online billboards.

The move is meant to encourage patients with less urgent needs to head to a nearby ER with a shorter waiting time. So perhaps a patient needing, say stitches, can drive a little further to another hospital for more immediate care. It also holds hospitals accountable to provide safe, high-quality care in an efficient manner. Of course, the move is not intended to discourage real life-threatening emergencies, which receive priority in the ER.

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According to preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, visits to the emergency room hit a high of more than 123 million in 2008. That's up from 117 million in 2007. And a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that visits to emergency departments increased at a rate double that of population growth in the U.S. between 1997 and 2007.

As ERs get busier, advertising wait times is a tactic being used to cut delays. In two years, hospitals are supposed to begin reporting to Medicare the rate at which certain patients move through their ERs.

Currently, there are no statistics on how many ERs advertise wait times, but hospitals doing so tend to have multiple medical centers in the region.

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About the author

Daryl Paranada is the associate web producer for Marketplace overseeing all daily website content and production, as well as producing multimedia features -- including the popular economic explainer series Whiteboard -- and special projects. Follow him on Twitter @darylparanada.

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