Variation in Rates of Hospital Admission from the Emergency Department Among Medicare Patients at the Regional, Hospital, and Physician Levels

Ann Emerg Med. 2021 Oct;78(4):474-483. doi: 10.1016/j.annemergmed.2021.03.020. Epub 2021 Jun 18.


Study objective: Rates of admission from the emergency department (ED) vary widely across regions of the country, hospitals within regions, and physicians within hospitals. Our objective was to determine the extent to which variation in admission decisions was described by differences in admission rates at these 3 levels. This understanding will serve to better target interventions to modify rates of admission where appropriate.

Methods: In this cross-sectional observational cohort study, we analyzed Medicare fee-for-service claims for ED visits from 2012 to 2015 in a 20% random sample of beneficiaries. We first estimated the total regional-, hospital-, and physician-level variations in rates of admission and their proportions of the total variation after adjusting for patient and each level's covariates. We then estimated the extent to which each level's characteristics accounted for variation at that respective level.

Results: Our study sample included 5,778,218 visits with 45,491 physicians at 3,480 EDs across 306 hospital referral regions. The mean rate of admission was 38.9% and ranged from 21.4% to 53.0% for physicians at the 10th and 90th percentile of the distribution, respectively. The residual (unexplained) variations at the regional, hospital, and physician levels were 13.3% (95% confidence interval [CI], 11.2 to 15.5%), 60.1% (57.1 to 62.9%), and 26.7% (26.4 to 26.9%), respectively. Regional, hospital, and physician characteristics accounted for 9.1% (95% CI, -5.6 to 23.8%), 51.1% (48.8 to 53.5%), and 2.7% (1.3 to 4.1%), respectively, of the explained variation at their respective levels.

Conclusion: Within-area variation, both across hospitals within a region and across physicians within a hospital, is a more substantial component of observed variation in admission rates from the ED than regional level variation. These findings suggest that variation in admission rates is at least in part related to institutional norms and cultures as well as heterogeneity of physician decisionmaking within hospitals, both of which could be targets of interventions to modify rates of admission.

Publication types

  • Observational Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Cohort Studies
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / statistics & numerical data*
  • Fee-for-Service Plans
  • Hospitalization / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Medicare / statistics & numerical data*
  • Patient Admission / statistics & numerical data*
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / statistics & numerical data*
  • United States