Introduction: Many emergency department (ED) visits are non-urgent. Postulated reasons for these visits include lack of access to family physicians, convenience and 24/7 access, perceived need for investigations or treatment not available elsewhere, and as a mechanism for expedited referral to other specialists. We conducted a patient survey to determine why non-urgent patients use our tertiary care ED. Our primary objective was to determine how often the lack of a family physician was associated with non-urgent ED use.
Methods: The survey was administered to Canadian Emergency Department Triage and Acuity Scale (CTAS) Level IV and V patients who attended the ED of the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax, NS, from March 7 to March 13, 2005.
Results: Of the 352 eligible patients, 235 completed the survey (response rate, 67%). Fifty-six percent (132/235) had an acute medical problem of less than 48 hours, including 48% (114/235) with a recent injury. Thirty-four percent (82/235) had been referred to the ED, 49% (114/235) believed they required a specific service that was unavailable elsewhere (e.g., radiology, suturing, casting) and 43% (100/235) presented because of self-perceived urgency of their condition. Eighty-four percent (198/235) had a family physician; 23% (55/235) used the ED because of limited access to their family physician and 3% (6/235) used the ED because they did not have a family physician.
Conclusions: In this setting, most non-urgent ED visits involved patients who required a specific service offered by the ED, patients who believed their condition was urgent, or patients who were referred from the community to the ED. From a patient perspective, relatively few visits would be considered inappropriate. Lack of a family physician was not associated with non-urgent ED use; however, inability to obtain timely access to the FP was a factor in one-quarter of cases.