Across the country, emergency departments (EDs) are experiencing, well, an emergency – specifically, overuse. Patients – for a variety of reasons – are treating emergency rooms like urgent care facilities. A report from the New England Healthcare Institute estimates that this overuse of EDs is responsible for $38 billion in wasteful spending each year. Additionally, a literature review published in the American Journal of Managed Care found that on average 37% of ED visits were judged to be non-urgent. The CDC’s numbers match up, finding that of the 130 million ED visits in 2013, only 8 percent could be classified as “immediate” or “emergent”.
Patients treating the emergency room as an urgent care can cause problems for hospitals and health systems. ED use can cause fragmentation, and even with an efficient EHR, can make effective care coordination challenging. What’s more, an ED being used as an urgent care for non-emergencies may increase wait times for all. Using “broken bone” as an example, ProPublica’s ER Wait Watcher shows an average wait time of between 38 and 72 minutes.
Another major concern for health systems related to ED overuse is uncompensated care. Patients treating the ED like an urgent care my receive a rude awakening when they find that their visit cost is only partially covered by insurance or is exponentially higher than a PCP or true urgent care visit. According to an article in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, only 50 percent of ED charges are reimbursed – including reimbursements through Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance.
With the mean cost of care delivered in the ED over $2,000 per visit (approximately 300% the cost of primary care) according to research published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, that adds up quickly – for both health systems and patients. A study in the American Journal of Medicine found that medical debt is a contributing or primary factor in more than 40% of personal bankruptcies. This creates a financial strain on health systems, and has the potential to result in ED closures, which in turn compromises access for patients experiencing a true emergency.
Why Patients Choose the ED – Access, Access, Access
There is no doubt that many patients go to the emergency department due to a bona fide emergency. But an article in the Journal of Emergency Nursing found that the reasons for going to the emergency department for non-emergency care were centered around access and inappropriate referrals. Specifically, patients visited the emergency room because they were unable to obtain a PCP appointment, were told by staff (not physicians) to go to the emergency room, or felt that it would take less of their time.
A review in the American Journal of Managed Care found similar reasoning around convenience, access, and cost. But the inability to access quality care elsewhere was the foremost reason for patients visiting the ED for non-urgent conditions. This is a particular challenge for uninsured and underinsured individuals and families, as well as those classified as having a low income, and why the top strategy for reducing ED overuse is broadening access to primary care services, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Ultimately, many patients go to the ED because they think it is easier than the alternatives. Younger patients, in particular, view the emergency department as a reasonable alternative to a primary care clinic for receiving care. This is part of the larger trend of consumerism in healthcare, in which patient choice is driving change in how and when care is delivered.
So, What’s the Answer?
Unfortunately, there’s no magic bullet to the challenges of supporting efficient use of an emergency department. The good news is there are things health systems can do to help reduce overuse. And one of those things is launching a virtual care service line and driving patients to the online access point in lieu of the ED.
For patients who are unable to obtain a PCP visit, virtual care offers an alternative access point. Available 24/7, unlike primary care clinics or even urgent care facilities, virtual care gives patients unprecedented access to care. Patients who can’t afford to or are otherwise unable to take time away from work to seek care during normal office hours can use the virtual care service to get the care they need. And, when using a virtual care platform that incorporates evidence-based algorithms and best practice-driven protocols patients are only directed to the urgent care or emergency department visits when clinically appropriate.
What’s more, patients seeking convenience in addressing non-urgent needs will likely find virtual care more appealing than the emergency department. They no longer have to leave their home, drive to the hospital, and sit in the waiting room. And virtual visits take a fraction of the time a primary care visit or even a trip to the emergency room would take.
The low cost of virtual care can also help steer patients away from the ED. Patients who don’t have insurance, are underinsured, or are taking on a larger portion of risk with a high-deductible health plan may struggle to pay for emergency care, leaving health systems with higher rates of uncompensated care. Patients who cannot cover a several-hundred dollar (or higher) emergency visit (see the shocking ED price tag example above), may be better able to pay the $30 or $40 for a virtual visit, about the cost of a typical copay.
Most importantly, with a virtual care service, health systems are expanding access to care. That means common conditions can be treated quickly before complications develop and the danger to the patient increases. This can be the difference between a simple urinary tract infection and a kidney infection or an upper respiratory infection and pneumonia. That means, getting patients treatment early could help reduce ED visits and improve patient outcomes.