September 8, 2010

ER Overload

(Ivanhoe Newswire) -- About 17 percent of all ER visits across the U.S. could be treated at medical clinics or urgent care centers, according to a new study.  It's a move that could save more than $4 billion annually in health care costs.

"Patient traffic to hospital emergency departments has been growing, but a significant proportion of patients could be safely treated in these alternative settings. Diverting these patients to alternatives such as retail clinics and urgent care centers could shorten their waiting times and save money," Robin Weinick, the study's lead author was quoted as saying.

More Americans are using emergency departments because they face long waits for appointments with their doctor, and limited after-hours options.  Many studies have found the cost of treating non-emergency conditions in the ER is significantly higher than in other settings, which increases out-of-pocket costs.

Researchers in this study analyzed information about people who visited retail medical clinics and urgent care centers and compared it to the profiles of patients who visited hospital emergency departments during 2006.  They examined the severity of injuries and illnesses seen in ERs, as well as the volume and mix of cases seen when clinics are open.

They found that 13.7 percent of all ER visits reviewed could have been treated in a medical clinic, although that proportion drops to 8 percent when the analysis is restricted to visits that occur when retail clinics are open.

An additional 13.4 percent of all hospital ER visits could be treated at an urgent care center.  Overall, the researchers estimated 27.1 percent of all emergency departments visits could be managed at a clinic or urgent care center, however, only 16.8 percent could be managed during the hours clinics are typically open.

"We've known for a long time that many people go to the emergency department with problems that could be addressed elsewhere, but this is the first time we have been able to quantify how many of those visits could be addressed at these alternative locations, study co-author Dr. Ateev Mehrotra, a researcher and assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine was quoted as saying.

SOURCE: Health Affairs, September 2010