WESLACO, RGV – It seems a contradiction in terms, making an appointment for a week Friday to visit the ER department.

But that is the service now on offer at the four emergency rooms operated by South Texas Health Systems. Patients with non-acute conditions have the opportunity to make an appointment for a future visit to the ER.

“If we know we are going to have 100 patients come through, how do we prevent bottlenecks so that you are not waiting there for two hours?” asked Jason Chang, chief executive officer of McAllen Heart Hospital. “We think this new service helps address that.”

The new service is titled ER Reserve. It is on offer at McAllen Medical Center, McAllen Heart Hospital, Edinburg Regional Hospital, and the Children’s Hospital in Edinburg, all operated by STHS. Two more ER departments are planned by the group, free-standing emergency rooms in Weslaco and Mission. ER Reserve will be available at these facilities also. A groundbreaking ceremony for the ER building in Weslaco was held on Tuesday.

Chang said ER Reserve started at the beginning of March and the feedback has been exceptional, particularly from Winter Texans. “It is a service that makes life easier. We basically greet patients at the door. Mr. Jones we have been expecting you.”

A groundbreaking ceremony was held on Tuesday for a new free-standing ER facility to be built in Weslaco by South Texas Health Systems.
A groundbreaking ceremony was held on Tuesday for a new free-standing ER facility to be built in Weslaco by South Texas Health Systems.

Chang said patients can use their computer, laptop, tablet or smart phone to request time in the ER for minor emergencies such as the flu, sore throat, earache, minor cough or cold, minor muscle sprain. Patients get a reminder in their email inbox about the appointment.

“We are the first hospital group in the Valley to do this but I am sure others will follow. It is really a study of the market and how people use technology. They can visit our website or download an app to see how long our ER wait times are. We are very proud that it is always around three minutes but you never know. You want to be an informed patient, an informed consumer. It is just like everything. It is not just for retail it is also your healthcare,” Chang explained.

Chang explained the rationale for starting ER Reserve.

“Nationally, there is a shortage of primary care doctors, especially family practice doctors. The lack of access means patients wait until they are very sick before they act. By that time it is often too late or it is very serious and they are going to an emergency room. As you look at some of these cases a lot of these can be bypassed by a flu shot. You do not have to go to an ER for a flu shot but if you are going to do that, let’s make it a better experience,” Chang said.

Chang said STHS handles 80,000-plus ER visits a year, far more than any other hospital group in the Valley.

“We think as South Texas Health System we have really mastered the ER experience. We do a very good job of getting patients through quickly, triaging them the appropriate way and then having high quality, so the outcomes have been very good. If we can bring these other small amenities, like the ER Reserve, the ER Wait Times, and then the Senior Care Product, to more places, then we are really meeting the emergency need of the community. If we start there, we cannot go wrong,” Chang said.

The Valley has such a high number of uninsured residents and many use the ER department as their primary medical care facility. Asked if this was a factor in deciding to introduce ER Reserve, Chang said not really.

“I come from California and it seems as though the rates are the same no matter where you go. If you do not have enough access, there are not enough providers, there are not enough night clinics the ER is the standby. An ER does not turn anybody away,” Chang said.

“So, our focus is, let us get patients in. I think that ultimately, if you can provide the good service, an efficient service, a very high quality service for the whole community, then the reputation will sort of just come to you.”

STHS is about to start a TV advertising campaign to promote its ER services. Tejano music performer Bobby Pulido of Edinburg will star in the commercials. “You can count on the experienced ER teams South Texas Health System. ER can be easy for you too,” Pulido says in the commercials. The campaign is called ER Just Got Easier.

Chang was also the main speaker at the groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday for a new free-standing ER in Weslaco. It is being built on the north side of I-2/Expressway 83 between Texas Avenue and Westgate Drive. A similar facility is to be built just west of Bryan Road on I-2/Expressway 83 in Mission. A groundbreaking ceremony for that facility will likely take place on June 10.

“Universal Health Systems, which South Texas Health Systems belongs to, owns 200 hospitals nationwide and this is the first free standing emergency department they have entered into. I am very proud we are doing it first in Weslaco,” Chang said.

In a news release, Chang said the South Texas ER at Weslaco will serve residents in the Mid-Valley area with 14 treatment and three short-stay observation rooms, a full laboratory, an ambulance bay and retail pharmacy. Diagnostics will be available on an emergency and outpatient basis to include CT, X-ray, ultrasound, bone density and mammography. The facility will have separate outpatient and emergency entrances and waiting areas.

“The South Texas ER at Weslaco expands accessibility to quality healthcare to the growing Mid-Valley area. Residents will experience first class emergency care in their own community. The provision of outpatient laboratory and radiological services provides a continuum of care for patients with chronic conditions. With the retail pharmacy on site, this facility is a one-stop shop for patients. Think of us as your friendly neighborhood medical center where you can go for quick, quality service, but know that we’ve got all the big-city advancements at our fingertips should you need it,” Chang said.

Chang added that South Texas ER at Weslaco will operate with emergency physicians and ancillary staff round-the-clock and on holidays. Providing Level IV trauma care, it will be capable of treating adult and pediatric general emergency cases on an outpatient basis, plus patients needing observation for less than 24 hours. Patients requiring surgical intervention or a higher level of care would be stabilized and transferred to an area hospital.

Other speakers at the groundbreaking ceremony were Eddie Saenz, chairman of STHS, state Rep. Armando Martinez, D-Weslaco, Weslaco City Manager Leonardo Olivares, and Jena Cuellar, daughter of Hidalgo County Commissioner A.C. Cuellar.