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Study confirms ER visits for basic health needs

September 7, 2010

It’s said so often you’d think it had already been proven- more and more people are going to the emergency room for health issues that could be easily (and cheaply) handled by a primary care doctor.

An article out in Health Affairs this month puts actual numbers behind the anecdotes.  The authors used national data on outpatient visits stretching back to 1997.  They determined that 28% of the visits that could be handled by a primary care doctor (things like a cough, headache, or a fever)  took place in the emergency department. If a patient was uninsured, that percent went up to more than 50%.

If patients didn’t go to an ER department, they didn’t necessarily go to a primary care doctor. The study shows that 20% went to specialists and 7% went to outpatient departments. In the end,  only 42 percent of patients went to primary care doctors to treat the things primary care doctors are meant to treat.

Of course, this is an incredibly wasteful use of resources.  An ER visit is much more expensive than a visit to a primary care doctor- both for the patient and the insurer.  Rhode Island and other states are trying to turn this around, especially with a model called patient centered medical homes.

For more on what RI is doing, check out my earlier post.

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