A systematic review of the magnitude and cause of geographic variation in unplanned hospital admission rates and length of stay for ambulatory care sensitive conditions

BMC Health Serv Res. 2015 Aug 13:15:324. doi: 10.1186/s12913-015-0964-3.


Background: Unplanned hospital admissions place a large and increasing strain on healthcare budgets worldwide. Many admissions for ambulatory care sensitive conditions (ACSCs) are thought to be preventable, a belief supported by significant geographic variations in admission rates. We conducted a systematic review of the evidence on the magnitude and correlates of geographic variation in ACSC admission rates and length of stay (LOS).

Methods: We performed a search of Medline and Embase databases for English language cross-sectional and cohort studies on 28th March 2013 reporting geographic variation in admission rates or LOS for patients receiving unplanned care across at least 10 geographical units for one of 35 previously defined ACSCs. Forward and backward citation searches were undertaken on all included studies. We provide a narrative synthesis of study findings. Study quality was assessed using a modified Newcastle-Ottawa scale.

Results: We included 39 studies comprising 25 on admission rates and 14 on LOS. Studies generally compared admission rates between regions (e.g. states) and LOS between hospitals. Most of the published research was undertaken in the US, UK or Canada and often focussed on patients with pneumonia, COPD or heart failure. 35 (90%) studies concluded that geographic variation was present. Primary care quality and secondary care access were frequently suggested as drivers of admission rate variation whilst secondary care quality and adherence to clinical guidelines were often listed as contributors to LOS variation. Several different methods were used to quantify variation, some studies listed raw data, failed to control for confounders and used naive statistical methods which limited their utility.

Conclusions: The substantial geographical variations in the admission rates and LOS of potentially avoidable conditions could be a symptom of variable quality of care and should be a concern for clinicians and policymakers. Policymakers targeting a reduction in unplanned admissions could introduce initiatives to improve primary care access and quality or develop alternatives to admission. Those attempting to curb unnecessarily long LOS could introduce care pathways or guidelines. Methodological work on the quantification and reporting of geographic variation is needed to aid inter-study comparisons.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease / therapy
  • Ambulatory Care*
  • Canada
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Hospitalization* / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Length of Stay*
  • Male
  • Primary Health Care
  • Small-Area Analysis*