Click photo to enlarge
Registered nurses Violetta Laboranti, Ruth Burke, and Randy May prepare a San Ramon Regional Medical Center emergency room Friday, July 20, 2012. The year-old facility has a much larger capacity than the old ER. (Karl Mondon/Staff)

SAN RAMON -- For some, real misery is sitting in an emergency room waiting hours for a doctor. Children cry, sick people cough and some guy with a bloody toe makes it to the front of the line because he is moaning the loudest.

But now you can make an ER reservation as easily as saving a table at the corner cafe.

For a small fee, patients at San Ramon Regional Medical Center can call in, save themselves a place in line, then wait to see a doctor from the comfort of their home.

And, if it takes more than 15 minutes to get into a treatment room, you get your $9.99 back.

Last year, the medical center completed a $10.7 million expansion of its emergency room. The new ER went from nine to 16 beds and added private treatment rooms with flat-screen TVs. The cramped waiting room that could barely fit 12 people elbow to elbow was replaced by a new one that holds 25 and boasts skylights, comfortable furniture and a children's area.

When it opened, it began offering an online sign-in service run by Nashville-based InQuicker intended to make checking-in more convenient and cut the wait.

"It's certainly reduced wait times for urgent care patients," said Reshea Holman, the hospital's emergency department director. "It keeps you from having to wait in the waiting room. You can wait at home. That's a major satisfier for patients."

Holman said the average wait time at the San Ramon Regional Medical Center emergency room is about 45 minutes, compared to a national average of about four hours.

If you've got a bad cough, a migraine headache, a laceration that needs stitches, or another condition that requires urgent care, you can log onto the hospital's website and click on the InQuicker banner. Times available to see a health care provider are shown in 15-minute increments.

By signing in and paying $9.99 with a credit card, you can hold your place in line.

Other hospitals in the InQuicker system charge as much as $24.99 for the service.

Sandra Ryan, a spokeswoman for San Ramon Regional, said the fee is mainly to ensure people show up at the emergency room after making an appointment.

The online sign-in service is not meant for people with critical conditions, Holman said. When filling out the online form, if someone describes symptoms of a stroke, a heart attack or some other life-threatening condition, the person will get an alert to immediately call 9-1-1.

Ryan said an appointment is not a guarantee that the person will get to see the doctor at the scheduled time. In the event of a big emergency that swamps the emergency room with patients, a person who has made an online appointment will get a text message or a phone call to come in later.

Last year, 110 people used the InQuicker system at San Ramon Regional. This year, an average of 21 people a month are using it, Ryan said.

InQuicker was founded in 2006, and its online system is now used by 142 emergency rooms, urgent care centers and doctor's offices across the country, according to Chris Song, a company spokesman.

Two other Bay Area hospitals offer the InQuicker service: UCSF Medical Center and UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital.

Song said 78 percent of patients using InQuicker wait less than 15 minutes in the emergency room, compared to 18 percent of emergency room visitors not using the service.

Also on the San Ramon Regional website, a timer displays the average current wait time in the ER. An app available for download provides access to a health information library, emergency room wait times, emergency room sign in, a map and directions to the hospital, phone numbers for doctors and first aid information.

Contact Jason Sweeney at 925-847-2123. Follow him at Twitter.com/Jason_Sweeney.