Statistics about children’s use of emergency departments

December 17, 2010  |  General

It’s pretty well known that emergency room use is on the increase. This recent study summarized the trend over the past decade (the complete article is behind a paywall — let me know if anybody wants a complete copy). The authors compared 1997 with 2007, looking at the number of ED visits per 1000 population. They found that the total number of visits had increased from 353 per 1000 persons in 1997 to 390 per 1000 persons. The total number of visits was about double what you would predict just from population growth. So more folks have been going to the ED over the past decade. How many of these were children?

It turns out that the rate among children has not changed significantly over the past decade — it’s stable at 362 per 1000 population. So the past decade’s growth in ED use has come from other age groups. The study found all adults between 18 and 64 years of age increased their rate of use. Interestingly, older people, those over 65, did not.

ED use by insurance status confirmed what all of us have known for quite some time: the uninsured and those with Medicaid have the highest rate of ED use. A patient with Medicaid was roughly twice likely as a patient with insurance to go to the ED for care, and someone with no insurance was half again as likely to go to the ED as an insured person. The reason for this is most likely little or no access to regular primary care, care which would keep them out of the ED. It’s getting harder and harder for kids on Medicaid to find a doctor, largely because the reimbursement rate is so bad. In my state, for example, a pediatrician gets paid less to see a child with complicated health problems than it costs to change the oil in your car.

Another recent study, this one just involving children, examines the issue of inappropriate ED use. After all, if children can get care from a regular doctor, they are less likely to use the ED to get routine care. (Unfortunately there’s a paywall on this article, too.)

The authors examined the characteristics of what they called “inappropriate” use of the ED — essentially things for which, if the child had a regular doctor, they would not have come to the ED. Their findings also confirmed what we would have suspected: poor kids, kids on Medicaid, and uninsured kids — those who had trouble finding a regular doctor — were more likely to use the ED for routine care. ED care is extremely expensive care: the same visit for asthma, for example, is far cheaper in the office than in the ED. But if you’re a parent whose child is without regular healthcare, where are you supposed to go, if not the ED? From the article:

“Specifically, patients identified access barriers in the primary care clinic as the major reason for choosing the ED instead of the clinic. They reported a cumbersome scheduling system, long waiting times for appointments, and no availability of walk-in care.”

All this seems obvious. But sometimes we need actual research studies to confirm the intuitively obvious. And excessive ED use is one of the engines in our ever-increasing healthcare bills.

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