National travel distances for emergency care

BMC Health Serv Res. 2022 Mar 24;22(1):388. doi: 10.1186/s12913-022-07743-7.


Background: Most emergency department (ED) patients arrive by their own transport and, for various reasons, may not choose the nearest ED. How far patients travel for ED treatment may reflect both patients' access to care and severity of illness. In this study, we aimed to examine the travel distance and travel time between a patient's home and ED they visited and investigate how these distances/times vary by patient and hospital characteristics.

Methods: We randomly sampled and collected data from 14,812 patients discharged to the community (DTC) between January and March 2016 from 50 hospital-based EDs nationwide. We geocoded and calculated the distance and travel time between patient and hospital-based ED addresses, examined the travel distances/ times between patients' home and the ED they visited, and used mixed-effects regression models to investigate how these distances/times vary by patient and hospital characteristics.

Results: Patients travelled an average of 8.0 (SD = 10.9) miles and 17.3 (SD = 18.0) driving minutes to the ED. Patients travelled significantly farther to avoid EDs in lower performing hospitals (p < 0.01) and in the West (p < 0.05) and Midwest (p < 0.05). Patients travelled farther when visiting EDs in rural areas. Younger patients travelled farther than older patients.

Conclusions: Understanding how far patients are willing to travel is indicative of whether patient populations have adequate access to ED services. By showing that patients travel farther to avoid a low-performing hospital, we provide evidence that DTC patients likely do exercise some choice among EDs, indicating some market incentives for higher-quality care, even for some ED admissions. Understanding these issues will help policymakers better define access to ED care and assist in directing quality improvement efforts. To our knowledge, our study is the most comprehensive nationwide characterization of patient travel for ED treatment to date.

Keywords: Access to care; Emergency department; Geographic distance; Travel distance; Travel time.

MeSH terms

  • Emergency Service, Hospital
  • Emergency Treatment
  • Health Services Accessibility*
  • Hospitals
  • Humans
  • Travel*