People with minor medical conditions are taking fewer trips to the emergency room, trading in the hospital for urgent care centers instead.
According to a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine on Tuesday, emergency department visits from 2008 to 2015 for low-acuity conditions dropped by 36 percent, while visits to non-emergent care facilities, such as urgent care centers or calls in to telemedicine services, grew by 140 percent.
The researchers examined 20.6 million visits of Aetna insurance members from 2008 to 2015 for “low-acuity” conditions, which include ailments such as sore throats, urinary tract infections, rashes and respiratory infections.
They discovered that visits to urgent care centers increased by 119 percent. Visits to retail clinics increased by 214 percent and the use of telemedicine increased from zero visits in 2008 to six visits per 1,000 members in 2015.
“The drop-in emergency department visits are quite striking and represent a substantial shift in where patients go to get care for conditions such as sore throat and minor injuries,” Dr. Sabrina Poon, co-author author and emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said in a press release.
Acute care visits make up more than one-third of all ambulatory care delivered in the U.S. and, according to the study, the rapid increase in the number of urgent care and retail medical centers, as well as the rise of telemedicine, may be driven by patients’ limited access to care, convenience, longer wait times in emergency rooms and increased expenses from hospitals.
Additionally, due to increasing costs in emergency rooms, insurance companies “have created incentives to encourage patients to receive that care elsewhere,” the release states.
According to the study, spending per patient per year for low-acuity conditions increased 14 percent from 2008 to 2015, largely due to a 79 percent increase in cost per emergency department visit for the treatment of such illnesses.
“The increasing popularity of alternatives to the emergency department is likely being driven by a variety of factors, including cost, convenience, and long wait times,” Dr. Jeremiah Schuur, co-author author and associate professor of emergency medicine at Harvard Medical School, said in the release. “In the next few years, it will be important to see how these trends evolve and whether the growth of alternative sites results in lower cost care or more use of medical care.”