US & World

Study: 17 percent of ER visits unnecessary

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SANTA MONICA — About 17 percent of visits to emergency rooms are unnecessary and have cost the U.S. $4.4 billion in health care costs, according to a study released today by Santa Monica-based RAND Corp.

Among the conditions being treated at ERs that could be handled elsewhere are minor infections, strains, fractures and lacerations, according to the study's findings, where were published in the September edition of the Health Affairs journal.

"Patient traffic to hospital emergency departments has been growing, but a significant proportion of patients could be safely treated in these alternative settings,'' said Robin Weinick, a RAND senior social scientist.

"Diverting these patients to alternatives such as retail clinics and urgent care centers could shorten their waiting times and save money.''

Overall, the report found that 27.1 percent of ER visits during 2006 could have been handled by a clinic or urgent care center, but only 16.8 percent occurred during hours that such alternatives are typically open.

While the study did not analyze whether such alternatives could handle the increased patient capacity from people who may have otherwise gone to an ER, it noted that clinics and care centers are generally staffed by
practitioners who can treat a variety of conditions. Urgent care centers also have facilities for X-rays and laboratory tests, giving them the ability to treat a broad range of ailments, according to the study.

"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,'' said Dr. Ateev Mehrotra, a study co-author and assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

The study was funded by the California HealthCare Foundation.

KPCC's Patricia Nazario contributed audio to this report.