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Many Emergency Department Visits Could Be Managed at Urgent Care Centers and Retail Clinics

Robin M. Weinick, Rachel M. Burns, and Ateev Mehrotra

This Health Affairs article by Weinick, Burns, and Mehrotra finds that up to 27% of hospital ED visits are not emergencies and could take place at less expensive urgent care centers and retail clinics.

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Despite the growing availability of urgent care centers and retail clinics, Americans continue to seek a large amount of nonemergency care from hospital emergency departments (EDs). A study published in the September issue of Health Affairs shows that hospital EDs could save $4.4 billion annually if more visits took place at alternative care sites.

The study, "Many Emergency Department Visits Could Be Managed at Urgent Care Centers and Retail Clinics," supported by CHCF, found that 14% to 27% of visits to hospital EDs do not require emergency care. Researchers identified several nonemergency conditions — including minor infections, strains, fractures, and lacerations — that could be treated effectively outside of the emergency room.

The authors noted that hospital emergency departments are under enormous pressure to treat every patient coming through their doors. The findings show that a significant amount of that strain can be reduced by steering patients who seek nonemergency care to alternative sites, where they will benefit from shorter wait times and lower out-of-pocket costs.

The authors warn that a continued increase in nonemergency ED visits is unsustainable, especially as the US health care system undergoes major policy changes. New initiatives such as medical home demonstrations and accountable care organizations encourage the use of primary care and seek to improve access, but are unlikely to provide a widespread solution in the short term. In addition, the expansion of insurance coverage under national health care reform may stretch the supply of primary care physicians. As such, the authors note there will continue to be a critical need for alternatives to emergency departments as providers of care.

The complete article is available free of charge on the Health Affairs site through the External Link below.