High-Intensity Emergency Department Visits Increased in California

Increasing use of the emergency department (ED) is well documented, but little is known about the type and severity of ED visits or their distribution across safety-net and non-safety-net hospitals.

The researchers examined the rates of high-intensity ED visits—characterized by their use of advanced imaging, consultations with specialists, the evaluation of multiple systems, and highly complex medical decision making—by patients with a severe, potentially life-threatening illness in California from 2002 through 2009.

Total annual ED visits increased by 25 percent, from 9.0 million to 11.3 million, but high-intensity ED visits nearly doubled, increasing 87 percent from 778,000 to 1.5 million per year. The percentage of ED visits with high-intensity care increased from 9 percent to 13 percent (a relative increase of 44 percent). Annual ED admissions increased by 39 percent overall; most of this increase was attributable to high-intensity ED admissions, which increased by 88 percent. Safety-net EDs experienced an increase in high-intensity visits of 157 percent, compared to an increase of 61 percent at non-safety-net EDs.

These findings suggest a trend toward intensification of ED care, particularly at safety-net hospitals, whose patients may have limited access to care outside the ED.