Objectives: Dramatic increases in emergency department (ED) use contribute to rising healthcare costs and decrease continuity of care in the United States. Yet little is known about the acuity, frequency of visits, and demographic characteristics of children using the ED. This study examines general demographic trends over a 3-year period and examines whether there are factors associated with varying acuity at an urban academic pediatric ED.
Methods: Analysis of administrative ED records from fiscal years (FY) 1999 to 2001 for children 0 to 18 years was performed to assess demographic characteristics, periodicity of ED use, and acuity level.
Results: Patient demographic characteristics, periodicity, and acuity were comparable for ED visits across each study year with approximately 25,000 annual visits. Among ED users in FY 2001, 42% sought urgent care exclusively, 12% received both urgent and nonurgent care, and 46% used the ED solely for nonurgent care. Of those with only nonurgent visits, 80% had 1 visit. In FY 2001, ED use was predominantly among patients who were black (77.3%) and were 1 to 4 years of age (35.4%). Relative to all patients, a greater percentage of those who used the ED exclusively for nonurgent care were black (87.2% vs. 76.0%, P < 0.05) and lived within 2 miles of the hospital (45.2% vs. 37.4%, P < 0.05).
Conclusions: Nearly half of pediatric emergency visits are for nonurgent care. Racial disparities in use of the ED for nonurgent care may be related to patient's proximity to the hospital. Patterns of use are stable across the 3 years. Further study is needed to identify mutable factors in emergency care use.