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Would you pay to not wait in your doctor's waiting room? This company is betting on it

In your hand, you hold the number 52. The nurse shepherding patients through the walk-in clinic just called 12, which means you can expect to be waiting hours.

What's your time worth? A Montreal-based company is betting you'd be willing to pay less than the equivalent of a grande latte for your "freedom" from the coughing, sniffling and tedium of a doctor's waiting room. Chronometriq has created a text service – $3 in Quebec (and the expected cost of $4 in Ontario) – that will buzz you on your phone as your number approaches. The company expects the technology, now in place in 24 clinics in Quebec, to expand to 50 walk-in clinics by spring, including some Ontario locations, pending approval from the provincial health ministry.

Its next stop is hospital emergency rooms, where Canadians endure longer waits than citizens of 11 other OECD countries, according to a study released last year.

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But it's also controversial: After all, the program introduces a questionable user-pay element to Canada's health care system. (The program is optional – you can still save your pennies and linger in the waiting room.)

As Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, points out, it won't do anything to reduce actual wait times in ERs, where according to the international study 31 per cent of Canadian wanted more than four hours to be seen by a doctor in 2010. (The average among all countries included was 12 per cent.) "It is not improving access to care at all," Mehra says. "The issue is people waiting too long to get in the door."

That's the point, argues Louis Parent, Chronometriq vice-president. "How many years have government said they will tackle wait times. And nothing has changed. We have to face facts."

Still, he agrees that charging user fees in hospital emergency rooms will problematic; Mehra suggests it would be a violation of the Canada's Health Act. His company, Parent says, is currently looking into alternative arrangements in which the government would contract with it for the service and not charge patients.

Parent notes that the current system costs patients valuable time and exposes them to germs in the waiting room – the same risk of exposure that had the head of the Ontario Medical Association asking employers to stop requiring sick notes that force workers to turn up at doctors' offices.

Still, critics such as Mehra will argue that Canadians are being asked to pay for a service that masks a significant problem with our health care system – for instance, too many patient having to resort to walk-in clinics in the first place. And, in the long run, when it comes to the quality of care and patient safety, that might prove more costly than a $3 text.

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