Background: The inappropriate use of emergency room (ER) service by patients with non-urgent health problems is a worldwide problem. Inappropriate ER use makes it difficult to guarantee access for real emergency cases, decreases readiness for care, produces negative spillover effects on the quality of emergency services, and raises overall costs.
Methods: We conducted a cross-sectional study in a medium-sized city in southern Brazil. The urgency of the presenting complaint was defined according to the Hospital Urgencies Appropriateness Protocol (HUAP). Multivariable Poisson regression was carried out to examine factors associated with inappropriate ER use.
Results: The study interviewed 1,647 patients over a consecutive 13-day sampling period. The prevalence of inappropriate ER use was 24.2% (95% CI 22.1-26.3). Inappropriate ER use was inversely associated with age (P = 0.001), longer stay in the waiting room, longer duration of symptoms and morning shift. However, the determinants of inappropriate ER use differed according age groups (P value for interaction = 0.04). Within the younger age-group (15-49 years), inappropriate ER use was higher among females, patients who reported visiting the ER because there was no other place to go, patients reporting that the doctor at the regular place of care refused to attend to them without a prior appointment, and individuals who reported that the PHC clinic which they use is open for shorter periods during the day. Among older patients (50+ years), those with highest level of education, absence of self-reported chronic diseases and lack of social support were more likely to engage in higher inappropriate ER use.
Conclusion: Efforts should be made to redirect inappropriate ER demand. Besides expanding access to, and improving the quality of primary and secondary care, it is important to mobilize social support for older patients, to enhance the relationship between different levels of care, as well as to develop campaigns to educate the public about the appropriate use of medical services.