California Healthline Daily Edition

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Study: Many ED Visits Could Be Handled by Urgent, Retail Clinics

Between 13.7% and 27.1% of patients who visit emergency departments could have obtained care from a retail clinic or urgent care clinic instead, a move that could reduce U.S. health care spending by up to $4.4 billion annually, according to a study published Tuesday in the journal Health Affairs, HealthLeaders Media reports (Clark, HealthLeaders Media, 9/8).

Researchers from the RAND Corporation conducted the study, which received funding from the California HealthCare Foundation. CHCF publishes California Healthline ("KPCC News," KPCC, 9/7).

Study Details

For the study, researchers analyzed 354 million annual acute care visits in EDs, retail clinics and urgent care centers between 2001 and 2004 (HealthLeaders Media, 9/8).

They found that retail clinics and urgent care centers effectively could handle conditions such as:

  • Lacerations;
  • Minor fractures;
  • Minor infections; and
  • Strains.

Researchers estimated that:

  • 13.7% of all hospital ED visits could be treated at a retail clinic;
  • 13.4% of ED visits could be treated at an urgent care center; and
  • A total of 27.1% of ED visits could be handled by either type of facility.

However, they noted that only 16.8% of all ED visits likely could be redirected to retail and urgent care clinics because of their operating hours (HealthDay/U.S. News & World Report, 9/7).

Researchers also noted that retail and urgent care clinics could help ameliorate the country's growing shortage of primary care physicians. They predicted that the shortage likely will become worse as the U.S. population ages, which could lead more people to seek care in EDs.

Disagreement With Recommendations

Angela Gardner, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians, said her organization has concerns about the RAND researchers' recommendations to shift more care to retail and urgent care clinics.

Gardner said retail clinics vary in quality and might not be properly equipped to manage a serious condition. She added that some people visit EDs for seemingly minor problems that turn out to be serious ailments.

In addition, Gardner criticized RAND's use of data from 2001 through 2004, saying the study fails to consider that the number of patients visiting EDs for nonurgent reasons has declined in recent years (HealthLeaders Media, 9/8).

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