(Bloomberg) — Just before her wedding this year, Ashleigh Kondracki came down with bronchitis and went to the emergency room. Instead of an onerous wait, the 22-year-old receptionist from Imperial, Mo., simply walked through the doors at SMM St. Clare Health Center and was seen right away.

Kondracki was able to breeze through the crowded waiting room because she went online and made a reservation from home, where she waited until her appointment.

Hospital emergency departments eager to woo patients are borrowing an idea from the restaurant industry. ER online reservations are available at hundreds of hospitals, including facilities run by Tenet Healthcare Corp., the third-largest U.S. hospital company. Reservations and other concierge services, including mobile apps that provide wait times, are intended to make emergency room experiences more palatable.

“We value it as a service,” says Rick Black, a Tenet spokesman. The Dallas-based company provides the online ER check-ins at 42 hospitals. It’s free for patients at all but a few of those facilities.

Reservations, already available in some doctors’ offices, are part of an increasing effort by hospitals to shore up revenue by enhancing patient satisfaction. On that score, the emergency room is an especially sore spot: From 2003 through 2009, the mean wait time in emergency departments increased to about 58 minutes from about 47 minutes, according to a report by the National Center for Health Statistics.

Patient satisfaction

Hospitals need to improve or the bottom line could suffer. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is shifting how hospitals are paid for patients on Medicare, the U.S. health plan for the elderly and disabled. Patient satisfaction scores will be taken into account in reimbursements, with higher-scoring hospitals landing bonuses.

In fiscal 2013, an estimated $850 million — funded by reducing hospital-based Medicare payments by 1% — will be allocated according to performance measures that include scores from patients such as those admitted through the ER.

Hospitals also want to benefit by attracting insured patients. About 60% of the patients at the Medical Center of Central Georgia in Macon, part of Central Georgia Health Systems Inc., come through the emergency department, says Cyndey Costello Busbee, a spokeswoman. They began offering ER reservations about a year ago, and the service has boosted patient satisfaction scores and improved efficiency.

“Because we make money on inpatient admissions, we want as many to move through our portal as possible as opposed to competitors,” she says, adding that the reservations are free for patients. “We were trying to clean up the way people just flood in. It’s revolutionized the experience.”

To use the reservation service, patients must describe their ailments when making a reservation. The online booking system won’t accept requests that involve serious symptoms, such as chest pains. Instead, those users are directed to go to the hospital or call 911.

InQuicker LLC, a Nashville, Tenn.-based company with $4 million in sales, offers the concierge service to about 140 hospital emergency departments.

“Doctors and nurses have embraced InQuicker because they can focus on the business of healing rather than apologizing for lengthy waits or a lack of communication,” says Tyler Kiley, InQuicker’s 27-year-old co-founder and chief technology officer.

Different treatment

Still, ER reservations may run afoul of a U.S. law that bans hospitals from giving different treatment to patients for non-medical reasons, says Robert Bitterman, president and CEO of Harbor Springs, Mich.-based Health Law Consulting Group Inc., which specializes in emergency medicine risk management. That’s because customers who hold their place online may be seen ahead of others with similar complaints that have been sitting in the waiting room, he says.

“It’s a wonderful system for urgent care or primary care, but it should be kept out of the emergency department,” Bitterman says, adding that it discriminates against lower-income patients. “Poor people don’t have access to smart phones or computers.”

Some critics say the service encourages overuse of already crowded emergency rooms.

“I’m just floored,” says Sara Rosenbaum, a health law and policy professor at George Washington University in Washington. “It’s concierge emergency departments, and by definition, if you’re making an appointment, it’s not an emergency. These are the same hospitals that go crying that they’re awash in patients and don’t know what to do.”

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