CDC: 1 in 5 Adults Used Emergency Department in 2011

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media , May 31, 2013

The federal agency’s findings, other data, and practical experience suggest that hospitals should brace for a pronounced increase in ED use in 2014 when the ranks of the insured are expected to expand, says a board member of the American College of Emergency Physicians.



One in five adults visited the emergency room at least once in 2011 and 7% reported two or more visits for the year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

The CDC’s 36th annual Health, United States, 2012 report also found that in the decade from 2001 to 2011 both children and adults on Medicaid were more likely than the uninsured and people with private insurance to have at least one emergency room visit in the past year.

Andrew I. Bern, MD, an emergency physician in Florida and a board member with the American College of Emergency Physicians, says much of the CDC report “absolutely validates” what his organization has long been saying.

 “The data is debunking the myth that only the uninsured go to the ED,” Bern says. “We’ve been saying that for a while but it has not been carried well by the media.”

Bern says the CDC data, other reports, and practical experience suggest that hospitals should brace for a pronounced increase in ED use in 2014 when the ranks of the insured are expected to expand by about 30 million people under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

“If you look at the Massachusetts, which is the basis for the Affordable Care Act, they found their volume of ED visits increased about 9% a year. When Canada instituted similar sorts of coverage their visits went up as well,” Bern says. “Wherever this has been attempted to provide universal coverage or near-universal coverage utilization increases unless you provide an infrastructure alternative, such as increasing the primary care physician access.”

Bern says it’s becoming apparent that sufficient ED alternatives will not be in place in many parts of the U.S. in 2014 when the ranks of the insured expand.

“You have alternative sites of care being developed but there is not good information on what impact that will have,” he says. “Those alternative sites of care include the retail clinics run by nurse practitioners, urgent care centers, and free-standing emergency departments that are popping up in different states. These may ultimately provide different sites of care when people are looking for care urgently but there is no consistent basis. If a patient wants to be sure that they are not going to be turned away the only sure bet they have is the emergency physicians who are under federal law to treat everybody regardless of their ability to pay.”

The CDC report also noted that:

  • In 2009–2010, cold symptoms were the most common reason for emergency room visits by children (27%) and injuries were the most common reason for visits by adults (14%.)
  • Between 2000 and 2010, 35% of emergency room visits included an x-ray, and the use of CT or MRI scans increased from 5% to 17% of visits.
  • In 2009–2010, 81% of ED visits were discharged for follow-up care, 16% ended with the patient being admitted to the hospital, 2% ended with the patient leaving without completing the visit, and less than 1% ended in the patient’s death.
  • In 2009–2010, 59% of ED visits (excluding hospital admissions) included at least one drug prescribed at discharge.
  • During 2001-2011, the percentage of persons with at least one ED visit in the past year was stable at 20-22%, and the percentage of persons reporting two or more visits was stable at 7-8%.

Bern says the CDC findings are consistent with a RAND Corporation study commissioned by the Emergency Physician Action Fund which shows that emergency physicians are key decision makers for nearly half of all hospital admissions.

RAND found that hospital admissions from the ED increased 17% over seven years, accounting for nearly all the growth in hospital admissions between 2003 and 2009, offset by a 10% drop in admissions from primary care physicians and clinical referrals. Nearly all of the increase was from “non-elective” admissions from the ED—a rate 3.8 times the rate of population growth.

Hospital inpatient care is a key driver of healthcare costs, accounting for 31% of the nation’s healthcare expenses. Because of that, the role emergency physicians play in deciding who to admit to the hospital is critical to hospital cost savings, since the average cost of an inpatient stay ($9,200) is roughly 10 times the average cost of a comprehensive emergency visit ($922), RAND said.

“When you look at the overall $2.7 trillion healthcare system and that 31% of that expense is in the hospital and we are integrally involved in 50% of those admissions decisions it points to the value of the emergency physicians in the entire system,” he says.

“The things we are proposing in terms of costs savings and integration are important points and our role in the entire healthcare context is one that is very very important to the bulk of that.”

John Commins is a senior editor with HealthLeaders Media.