Many ED patients could have been treated in an urgent care center: Study

The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control's (CDC) National Health Statistics Reports (http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr026.pdf) shows continued use of the nation's emergency rooms for conditions that could be treated in an urgent care setting.

Of the 116.8 million visits covered by the 2007 Emergency Department (ED) Summary, only 16.4% were actually admitted to a hospital or kept for observation, while the overwhelming majority (62%) were referred to their primary care provider or a specialist for follow up. Another 35% were referred back to the ED "as needed", presumably because those patients did not have a regular doctor. Over one third of the patients categorized their pain levels as "none" or "mild"; the chief complaints continue to be (as they were in the 2006 data) upper respiratory issues, otitis media (earache), abdominal pain, wounds, and obstetrics complications.

While in the ED, 45.5% of the patients had a procedure, the majority of which were common procedures such as administration of IV fluids, splinting or wrapping, repair of a laceration, or a nebulizer treatment. Urgent care centers can treat the vast majority of these issues and others—issues that don't require an inpatient stay and are not life or limb-threatening emergencies—at a lower cost and usually a much shorter wait time than the ED. Urgent care centers perform all of those common procedures and are set up to provide referrals back to primary care or specialists. Urgent care centers are open for extended hours, as well as on weekends, providing easy access.

While there will continue to be uncertainty about what seemingly minor conditions truly belong in the ED, and patients should always err on the side of caution, it is clear from the latest CDC data (based on the chief complaints, levels of pain, types of treatment and ultimate discharge plans for most patients) that many ED patients likely could have been treated in an urgent care center.

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