For a person with a pacemaker or implantable defibrillator, a weekend or evening trip to the emergency room or urgent care can become an hours-long slog of waiting for the "expert" to show up.

Patients with implanted cardiac devices must routinely have their devices checked when they need medical attention -- even though the issue is something other than their heart.

The problem is, such checks require an expert to go over the device in person. That can take a lot of time on nights and weekends, or in rural areas.

Medtronic says it has a solution. On Tuesday, the Fridley-based medical device manufacturer announced the U.S. launch of CareLink Express, a remote monitoring service that officials say will shorten wait times at clinics and emergency rooms for patients with implanted cardiac devices.

A recent 55-site pilot program found that hospitals using CareLink Express reduced time lost to device checks from an average of 84 minutes to less than 15 minutes. Not only that, the system also sends a real-time report to the patient's primary physician as a heads-up that a patient had been to the hospital or clinic.

It also can save money, Medtronic said. One facility using CareLink Express saved an estimated $130,000 in 2 1/2 months.

North Memorial Medical Center's device clinic in Robbinsdale was one of the sites participating in the pilot program. Cindy Otto, lead nurse in the clinic, said the system proved a time- and money-saver.

"The patients don't have to wait in the ER for one of us nurses to be freed to go down there," she said. "And it saves costs for patients because they don't have to be admitted to the hospital to be watched."

The system can tell the device expert and physician everything that has happened with the device since the last time it was checked, she said. It also can check a device when the patient is home, allowing experts to monitor how it's functioning even when the patient doesn't have a health problem that needs to be checked.

Health care facilities with a CareLink Express monitor can check or "interrogate" almost all Medtronic cardiac devices with a single touch. When a patient arrives at the facility, a technician waves a wand over the patient's chest.

The wand picks up data from the device that the CareLink transmits to a data network. A device expert receives an automatic notification via pager or e-mail.

The expert then can review that information from wherever he or she is and give the hospital or clinic an assessment of the device's status. Based on that assessment, staff in the emergency room or clinic can make treatment decisions.

In addition to the device expert, data can be automatically sent to the facility's electronic health record database, as well as to the patient's physician.

"Our data shows that CareLink Express reduces burdens on physicians and hospitals by increasing workflow efficiency and reducing operating costs," said Pat Mackin, president of the Cardiac Rhythm Disease Management business at Medtronic.

The CareLink network is not the only remote monitoring system out there, as the medical device industry is moving toward an ability to check on devices -- and to have devices talk to them -- from afar. It is a promising market, considering that more than 3 million Americans have implantable cardiac devices.

Medtronic said its network is the longest-running remote monitoring system. CareLink is available in more than 6,600 clinics and involves 720,000 patients in 33 countries, according to Medtronic.

James Walsh • 612-673-7428