Hospital emergency departments play a growing role in the U.S. health care system, accounting for a rising proportion of hospital admissions and serving increasingly as an advanced diagnostic center for primary care physicians, according to a new RAND Corporation study.
While often targeted as the most expensive place to get medical care, emergency rooms remain an important safety net for Americans who cannot get care elsewhere and may play a role in slowing the growth of health care costs, according to the study.
Emergency departments are now responsible for about half of all hospital admissions in the United States, accounting for nearly all of the growth in hospital admissions experienced between 2003 and 2009.
Despite evidence that people with chronic conditions such as asthma and heart failure are visiting emergency departments more frequently, the number of hospital admissions for these conditions has remained flat. Researchers say that suggests that emergency rooms may help to prevent some avoidable hospital admissions.
"Use of hospital emergency departments is growing faster than the use of other parts of the American medical system," said Dr. Art Kellermann, the study's senior author and a senior researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "While more can be done to reduce the number of unnecessary visits to emergency rooms, our research suggests emergency rooms can play a key role in limiting growth of preventable hospital admissions."
RAND was asked by the Emergency Medicine Action Fund, a consortium of emergency medicine physician organizations, to develop a more-complete picture of how hospital emergency departments contribute to the U.S. health care system.
Researchers reviewed recent studies published about the use of emergency departments, analyzed federal information about emergency room use and conducted a series of interviews with primary care physicians, hospital-based doctor
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