What is Appropriate Emergency Room Utilization?
A recent NPR article discussed a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association pointing out that complex problems cannot be solved by simple solutions. The problem to be solved is the high cost of emergency department (ED) utilization. The solution being developed by many states: Don’t pay for non-emergent visits. Sounds logical. But, as the authors point out, patients don’t go to the emergency department with diagnoses, they go with symptoms. A person with chest pain and shortness of breath at 3 a.m. should be evaluated on an emergency basis; if that person is having a heart attack, the visit is justified. If the person actually is having gastroesophageal reflux, is the visit not necessary? How is the person to know? Clearly, some people use the ED for non-emergent conditions, but making payment decisions based on discharge diagnoses has the possibility of discouraging patients from seeking needed care. In this study, only 6.3% of ED visits were classified as “primary care-treatable.”
The article makes an excellent point—“Between 4.5% and 8% of individuals in the ED are frequent users, but they account for 21% to 28% of visits.” In a 2003 Massachusetts study, 3.8% of ED users accounted for 17.6% of all ED visits. Our own data show similar results for these ED 'frequent flyers.' Perhaps a better way to reduce ED costs is to focus on those individuals who are the most frequent users, addressing their medical and socioeconomic problems, rather than penalizing those who genuinely believe they are having a medical emergency. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) should consider studying the profiles of frequent users of the ED and designing policies to address their challenges.
In a fee for service environment, ED overutilization is a logistic challenge for hospitals, but in an accountable care organization environment, with hospitals financially responsible for the health of the population it serves, ED overutilization becomes a financial issue. It is time to take a detailed look at this problem.