Which emergency department visits are avoidable?

Avoidable emergency department visits: a starting point

By Renee Y. Hsia and Matthew Niedzwiecki
International Journal for Quality in Health Care, August 31, 2017


To better characterize and understand the nature of a very conservative definition of ‘avoidable’ emergency department (ED) visits in the United States to provide policymakers insight into what interventions can target non-urgent ED visits.

We performed a retrospective analysis of a very conservative definition of ‘avoidable’ ED visits using data from the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey from 2005 to 2011.

We examined a total of 115,081 records, representing 424 million ED visits made by patients aged 18–64 years who were seen in the ED and discharged home.

Main outcome measures
We defined ‘avoidable’ as ED visits that did not require any diagnostic or screening services, procedures or medications, and were discharged home.

In total, 3.3% of all ED visits were ‘avoidable.’ The top five chief complaints included toothache, back pain, headache, other symptoms/problems related to psychosis and throat soreness. Alcohol abuse, dental disorders and depressive disorders were among the top three ICD-9 discharge diagnoses. Alcohol-related disorders and mood disorders accounted for 6.8% of avoidable visits, and dental disorders accounted for 3.9% of CCS-grouped discharge diagnoses.

A significant number of ‘avoidable’ ED visits were for mental health and dental conditions, which the ED is not fully equipped to treat. Our findings provide a better understanding of what policy initiatives could potentially reduce these ‘avoidable’ ED visits to address the gaps in our healthcare system, such as increased access to mental health and dental care.

From the Discussion

Our findings serve as a start to addressing gaps in the US healthcare system, rather than penalizing patients for lack of access, and may be a better step to decreasing ‘avoidable’ ED visits.



By Don McCanne, M.D.

This study is helpful in that the authors deliberately used a very conservative definition for which emergency department visits were avoidable. Under such a definition, 97% of visits were appropriate. The significance of this is that, instead of establishing often punitive policies to keep patients from supposedly abusing the emergency department, we should instead establish policies that would improve access for patients to more appropriate health care services and facilities.

A health care system designed to benefit the medical-industrial complex, including the private insurance industry, is going to use resources and incentives differently than a public system designed to benefit patients. Single payer supporters should have no difficulty in conceiving what those differences might be regarding urgent and emergency care.

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