Impact of seasonal and pandemic influenza on emergency department visits, 2003-2010, Ontario, Canada

Acad Emerg Med. 2013 Apr;20(4):388-97. doi: 10.1111/acem.12111.


Objectives: Weekly influenza-like illness (ILI) consultation rates are an integral part of influenza surveillance. However, in most health care settings, only a small proportion of true influenza cases are clinically diagnosed as influenza or ILI. The primary objective of this study was to estimate the number and rate of visits to the emergency department (ED) that are attributable to seasonal and pandemic influenza and to describe the effect of influenza on the ED by age, diagnostic categories, and visit disposition. A secondary objective was to assess the weekly "real-time" time series of ILI ED visits as an indicator of the full burden due to influenza.

Methods: The authors performed an ecologic analysis of ED records extracted from the National Ambulatory Care Reporting System (NARCS) database for the province of Ontario, Canada, from September 2003 to March 2010 and stratified by diagnostic characteristics (International Classification of Diseases, 10th Revision [ICD-10]), age, and visit disposition. A regression model was used to estimate the seasonal baseline. The weekly number of influenza-attributable ED visits was calculated as the difference between the weekly number of visits predicted by the statistical model and the estimated baseline.

Results: The estimated rate of ED visits attributable to influenza was elevated during the H1N1/2009 pandemic period at 1,000 per 100,000 (95% confidence interval [CI] = 920 to 1,100) population compared to an average annual rate of 500 per 100,000 (95% CI = 450 to 550) for seasonal influenza. ILI or influenza was clinically diagnosed in one of 2.6 (38%) and one of 14 (7%) of these visits, respectively. While the ILI or clinical influenza diagnosis was the diagnosis most specific to influenza, only 87% and 58% of the clinically diagnosed ILI or influenza visits for pandemic and seasonal influenza, respectively, were likely directly due to an influenza infection. Rates for ILI ED visits were highest for younger age groups, while the likelihood of admission to hospital was highest in older persons. During periods of seasonal influenza activity, there was a significant increase in the number of persons who registered with nonrespiratory complaints, but left without being seen. This effect was more pronounced during the 2009 pandemic. The ratio of influenza-attributed respiratory visits to influenza-attributed ILI visits varied from 2.4:1 for the fall H1N1/2009 wave to 9:1 for the 2003/04 influenza A(H3N2) season and 28:1 for the 2007/08 H1N1 season.

Conclusions: Influenza appears to have had a much larger effect on ED visits than was captured by clinical diagnoses of influenza or ILI. Throughout the study period, ILI ED visits were strongly associated with excess respiratory complaints. However, the relationship between ILI ED visits and the estimated effect of influenza on ED visits was not consistent enough from year to year to predict the effect of influenza on the ED or downstream in-hospital resource requirements.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Ambulatory Care / statistics & numerical data*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cost of Illness
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Influenza, Human / epidemiology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Ontario / epidemiology
  • Pandemics / statistics & numerical data*
  • Prevalence
  • Regression Analysis
  • Seasons*
  • Young Adult