We describe Alberta's publicly funded system of rural hospital emergency outpatient services just before the profound impact of major health care reforms. From a rural physician's perspective, we descriptively analyze a unique government database that contains the number of emergency outpatient visits to all Alberta hospitals in the fiscal year 1992/93. We found that most people in rural Alberta had ready access to an extensive system of physician-based rural hospital emergency outpatient services, that 50% of all emergency visits were made to rural hospitals, and that 70% of physicians providing hospital-based emergency services were rural. There were significant differences in the emergency outpatient use of large urban, regional urban, and rural hospitals, and between rural hospitals that were close, middle, or remote distances from tertiary or secondary care centers. We identify some clinically important factors that are not described by available data, but which should be considered by the reform movement.