Each year, thousands of Americans end up in hospital emergency rooms for problems that could have been avoided, new research shows.
The top causes of preventable ER visits in the United States include alcohol abuse, dental problems and mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety, the new study says.
ER visits could be reduced if patients had better access to dental and mental health care, according to researchers from the University of California, San Francisco.
The study comes as some insurers are looking to cut back on coverage for ER visits they deem “inappropriate” or avoidable.
Researchers reviewed 424 million ER visits by 18- to 64-year-old patients between 2005 and 2011. Nearly 14 million visits (3.3 percent) were avoidable, meaning patients were sent home without receiving any care.
The main reasons for avoidable visits were toothaches, back pain, headaches, sore throats and psychotic issues, the researchers said.
Nearly 17 percent of ER visits for mood-related disorders, such as depression and anxiety, were avoidable, as were 10.4 percent of alcohol-related visits, and nearly 5 percent of dental-related visits, according to the study. About 14 percent of the patients arrived by ambulance.
“Our study used a conservative definition of ‘avoidable’ to help physicians, policymakers and even insurance providers get a better picture of truly avoidable emergency department visits,” study lead author Dr. Renee Hsia said in a university news release. Hsia is a professor of emergency medicine and health policy at UCSF.
She said ERs aren’t set up to treat some conditions that prompt patients to seek emergency care, but it shouldn’t be assumed that the ER is inappropriate, either.
“We found that many of the common conditions of avoidable visits are mental and dental health-related, which emergency departments are generally ill-equipped to treat, suggesting a lack of access to health care rather than intentional inappropriate use,” Hsia said.
She said the findings suggest that “policy initiatives could alleviate pressure on emergency departments by addressing gaps in dental and mental health care in the U.S., which could provide treatment to this group of visitors at a lower cost elsewhere.”
The study was published recently in the International Journal for Quality in Health Care.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine explains when you should go to the ER.