study conducted for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that while the number of overall hospital emergency department visits decreased 3% in 2015 compared to 2014, non-urgent visits increased by 4.3%. Crowded ER waiting rooms and long wait times increasingly aggravate patients, particularly in urban areas with dense populations. A study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine in 2013 found a 5% increase in inpatient death for patients admitted on days with high emergency department crowding.

Mobilesmith published a white paper outlining strategies by which U.S. emergency departments can leverage mobile apps to reduce emergency room (ER) overcrowding. Online apps that publish ER wait times don’t help, according to MobileSmith, which stated many hospitals that tried such apps reported increased traffic. One strategy that did help was to report wait times at nearby urgent care centers, which convinces a significant number of people to choose urgent care instead. Other mobile apps that reportedly pay off in reduced ER traffic include maps and directions to alternative care facilities and online symptom guides that help patients determine the type of care needed. One of the most significant issues in bogging down ER patient flow is the growth in what MobileSmith calls “super-utilizers,” people who show up often rather than going to primary care facilities. The MobileSmith suggests using an app that shows locations of nearby primary care facilities, overnight stay options, and tap-to-call transportation links. Other mobile apps that can cut ER visits or at least improve the experience include overall experience surveys that allow patients to vent and “beacon technology” that tracks and reports patient time at different stages in their visits to both the patient and staff.

Changes in insurance coverage, knowledge, accessibility, and patient cost all factor in ER overuse. MobileSmith’s report on what works — and what doesn’t — suggests tools that emergency departments can use to understand better what’s going on at their location rather than just report the numbers while the costs and congestion continue to increase.