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ER Overuse: Is It A Myth?

Overuse of the emergency department is commonly discussed during the healthcare conversation, especially with the lack of primary care access shunting patients with seemingly routine symptoms to the ER. But is this a myth? That’s what two emergency physicians contend in a piece from Slate.

The emergency department is functioning just fine, they say: “Just 12 percent of ER visits are not urgent. People also tend to think ER visits cost far more than primary care, but even this is disputable. In fact, the marginal cost of treating less acute patients in the ER is lower than paying off-hours primary care doctors, as ERs are already open 24/7 to handle life-threatening emergencies.”

“Unnecessary” emergency use is no different from the perceived waste in other medical specialties — like heart procedure overuse in cardiology, vertebroplasties for compression fractures, or the knee surgeries in orthopedics. Perhaps it’s not fair to single out the ER.

But I am curious to see what the next few years will bring. As we add 35 million new patients to an already overburdened primary care system — where patients already wait up to 2 months for an appointment — we’ll see whether the numbers of discretionary visits to the emergency department will overwhelm the system.

*This blog post was originally published at KevinMD.com*


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