Hospitals Guarantee Health-Care Delivery 'PIZZAFICATION OF MEDICINE'?

Article excerpt

Thirty minutes or it's free. The marketing concept has become a hit in the business of pizza delivery, but is it good medical practice in the nation's emergency rooms?

Columbia Medical Center Phoenix is one of a number of hospitals in the US that are testing the idea for patients with minor emergencies. It and other affiliates of Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., the hospital-chain giant, are offering the 30-minute guarantee of service in an effort to attract emergency-room patients, who say long waits are their top complaint.

The Columbia experiment has intensified an already-searing debate over quality of medical care in an increasingly commercialized - and competitive - environment. It comes at a time when high costs of health care have been driving the nation to rethink the way health services are delivered and shifting the balance of power between doctors and the business office. The idea is causing some in the medical community, notably emergency-room doctors, to ask whether a profession that prides itself on adhering to the Hippocratic oath should be resorting to the same marketing techniques as fast-food chains. Columbia's pitch is simply stated in its newspaper advertisements: "You'll be seen by our triage nurse and then an ER professional in 30 minutes or your visit is free." Typical emergency-room waits are about 1-1/2 hours. Improving its emergency-room service has paid off, according to Columbia spokeswoman Caroline Berger. Since the 30-minute deal started a few months ago, Columbia has seen a rise in emergency-room visits. The medical center sees about 15,000 emergency-room cases a year, a small number compared with other Phoenix area hospitals. During a recent survey, she notes, the hospital recorded a 5 to 10 percent increase in weekday emergency-room traffic, compared with the same period a year ago. On weekends, patient traffic jumped 20 percent over the comparable year-ago period. Some patients are driving past other emergency rooms in more outlying areas to come to Columbia, believing that the total time to receive treatment will actually be less than if they had stopped at a closer site, Ms. …