Importance: Rural US residents disproportionately rely on emergency departments (ED), yet little is known about patient outcomes after ED visits to rural hospitals or critical access hospitals (CAHs).
Objective: To compare 30-day outcomes after rural vs urban ED visits and in CAHs, a subset of rural hospitals.
Design, setting, and participants: This propensity-matched, retrospective cohort study used a 20% sample of national Medicare fee-for-service beneficiaries from January 1, 2011, to October 31, 2015. Rural and urban ED visits were matched on demographics, patient prior use of EDs, comorbidities, and diagnoses. Thirty-day outcomes overall and stratified by 25 common ED diagnoses were evaluated, with similar analysis of CAHs vs non-CAHs. Data were analyzed from February 15, 2020, to May 17, 2021.
Main outcomes and measures: The primary outcome was 30-day all-cause mortality. Secondary outcomes were ED revisits with and without hospitalization.
Results: The matched cohort included 473 152 rural and urban Medicare beneficiaries with a mean (SD) age of 75.1 (7.9) years (59.1% and 59.3% women, respectively; 86.9% and 87.1% White, respectively). Medicare beneficiaries at rural vs urban EDs experienced similar all-cause 30-day mortality (3.9% vs 4.1%; effect size, 0.01), ED revisits (18.1% vs 17.8%; effect size, 0.00), and ED revisits with hospitalization (6.0% vs 8.1%; effect size, 0.00). Rural ED visits were associated with more transfer (6.2% vs 2.0%; effect size, 0.22) and fewer hospitalizations (24.7% vs 39.2; effect size, 0.31). Stratified by diagnosis, patients in rural EDs with life-threatening illnesses experienced more transfer with 30-day mortality similar to that of patients in urban EDs. In contrast, mortality differed for patients in rural EDs with symptom-based diagnoses, including chest pain (odds ratio [OR], 1.54 [95% CI, 1.25-1.89]), nausea and vomiting (OR, 1.68 [95% CI, 1.26-2.24), and abdominal pain (OR, 1.73 [95% CI, 1.42-2.10]). All findings were similar for CAHs.
Conclusions and relevance: The findings of this cohort study of rural ED care suggest that patient mortality for potentially life-threatening conditions is comparable to that in urban settings. Further research is needed to understand the sources of greater rural ED mortality for symptom-based conditions. These findings underscore the importance of ensuring access to treatment of life-threatening conditions at local EDs in rural communities, which are increasingly endangered by hospital closures.