Objective: To describe how high-cost users of inpatient care in Western Australia differ from other users in age, health problems and resource use.
Design and data sources: Secondary analysis of hospital data and linked mortality data from the WA Data Linkage System for 2002, with cost data from the National Hospital Cost Data Collection (2001-02 financial year).
Outcome measures: Comparison of high-cost users and other users of inpatient care in terms of age, health profile (major diagnostic category) and resource use (annualised costs, separations and bed days).
Results: Older high-cost users (> or = 65 years) were not more expensive to treat than younger high-cost users (at the patient level), but were costlier as a group overall because of their disproportionate representation (n = 8466; 55.9%). Chronic stable and unstable conditions were a key feature of high-cost users, and included end stage renal disease, angina, depression and secondary malignant neoplasms. High-cost users accounted for 38% of both inpatient costs and inpatient days, and 26% of inpatient separations.
Conclusion: Ageing of the population is associated with an increase in the proportion of high-cost users of inpatient care. High costs appear to be needs-driven. Constraining high-cost inpatient use requires more focus on preventing the onset and progression of chronic disease, and reducing surgical complications and injuries in vulnerable groups.