Objective: To describe primary care clinic use and emergency department (ED) use for a cohort of public hospital patients seen in the ED, identify predictors of frequent ED use, and ascertain the clinical diagnoses of those with high rates of ED use.
Design: Cohort observational study.
Setting: A public hospital in Atlanta, Georgia.
Patients: Random sample of 351 adults initially surveyed in the ED in May 1992 and followed for 2 years.
Measurements and main results: Of the 351 patients from the initial survey, 319 (91%) had at least one ambulatory visit in the public hospital system during the following 2 years and one third of the cohort was hospitalized. The median number of subsequent ED visits was 2 (mean 6.4), while the median number of visits to a primary care appointment clinic was O (mean 1.1) with only 90 (26%) of the patients having any primary care clinic visits. The 58 patients (16.6%) who had more than 10 subsequent ED visits accounted for 65.6% of all subsequent ED visits. Overall, patients received 55% of their subsequent ambulatory care in the ED, with only 7.5% in a primary care clinic. In multivariate regression, only access to a telephone (odds ratio [OR] 0.48; 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.39, 0.60), hospital admission (OR 5.90; 95% CI 4.01, 8.76), and primary care visits (OR 1.68; 95% CI 1.34, 2.12) were associated with higher ED visit rates. Regular source of care, insurance coverage, and health status were not associated with ED use. From clinical record review, 74.1% of those with high rates of use had multiple chronic medical conditions, or a chronic medical condition complicated by a psychiatric diagnosis, or substance abuse.
Conclusions: All subgroups of patients in this study relied heavily on the ED for ambulatory care, and high ED use was positively correlated with appointment clinic visits and inpatient hospitalization rates, suggesting that high resource utilization was related to a higher burden of illness among those patients. The prevalence of chronic medical conditions and substance abuse among these most frequent emergency department users points to a need for comprehensive primary care. Multidisciplinary case management strategies to identify frequent ED users and facilitate their use of alternative care sites will be particularly important as managed care strategies are applied to indigent populations who have traditionally received care in public hospital EDs.