There’s a new development in the mobile world that could end up helping with that ever-present problem of the interminable emergency room wait time. Hospitals and developers across the country have started releasing emergency room wait time apps, which broadcast the average time a patient will have to wait in a specific hospital’s emergency room or in the ERs of hospitals in a specific area.

The aim of these apps is to cut back on wait times for patients visiting ERs — eliminating both the agony of waiting in a hospital waiting room, and the worsening of any illness or injury while patients wait for medical care.

The way the apps work is simple. Staff members at hospitals across the country post wait times themselves, and times are updated regularly to give users the most up-to-date information possible. The theory behind the app is that a user who feels like they need emergency care will go to the ER with the shortest wait time — balancing out the number of patients at each hospital.

Currently, most wait time apps are location- and hospital-specific. Some of the most far-reaching are the New England ER Wait Times app by JCI Design, covering many of the emergency rooms in the New England area, and ER Extra, which offers emergency room wait times based on your GPS location. Often, hospital-specific apps are the most accurate because they are updated directly from staff at the hospital themselves, and there are hundreds of hospitals across the country who have developed their own apps.

Nearly all of the apps are free to download, and many include other helpful features for patients looking for information regarding emergency rooms — including directions to hospitals via your phone's GPS, preregistration forms to fill out, and physician profiles with contact information. These apps can help people make informed decisions about where they will receive medical care and from whom.

ER wait time apps are a great development for people without life-threatening emergencies. They allow patients to choose the hospital with the shortest wait time — often choosing to travel to a place farther away, because the travel time is still less than the wait time would be at the busier ER.

However, the apps do have drawbacks. While hospitals do the best they can to keep wait times accurate, emergencies are never predictable, and the amount of patients present and doctors available can change by the second. Also, ER patients are usually treated in order of the severity of their problem. Therefore, patients with a life-threatening condition choosing to travel a longer distance for a shorter wait time may end up doing more harm than good, since there is a chance they will be seen right away (or at least quickly) at any ER.

Ultimately, waiting in the ER is a perpetual and long-standing problem that has no straightforward solution. However, wait time apps have certainly helped eliminate long and excruciating waits for people who need serious, but not immediate emergency care. As these apps develop further, hopefully they will become better and better at predicting the lengths of waits and, in turn, eliminating unnecessarily long ones.