1 in 5 emergency room visits unnecessary: study

WINNIPEG – If you need to see a doctor, a new study suggests you think twice about heading for the emergency department.

Nearly one in five patients across Canada who went to an emergency room could have been treated elsewhere, the Canadian Institute for Health Information, or CIHI, says in a study released Thursday.

“There is some reassurance in going to a hospital, but they are not always the best place to be,” said Wendy Ducharme, the regional program director for the Winnipeg Regional Healthy Authority emergency program.

In Winnipeg, that adds up to about 56,000 unnecessary emergency visits per year at the city’s seven hospitals. The number could be much higher here, as the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority uses a longer list of medical complaints that don’t belong in the ER.

Ducharme said WRHA statistics show 43 per cent of visits doctors see fall into the category of not truly emergent, higher than what this study found.

Story continues below advertisement

Hospitals in Winnipeg have some of the worst wait times in the country. Unnecessary visits don’t help.

“When you have people coming that maybe could wait to tomorrow to see their family doctor or go to a Quick Care Clinic or go elsewhere, it will impact the care and the timelines for people to get care,” said Ducharme.

Colds were the most common reason for an unnecessary visit to emergency, the CIHI study says.

People needing antibiotics, with a sore throat, ear infections or needing followup from surgery for things like removal of stitches also tie up the emergency room and add to long delays for service.

These issues can be dealt with best by a family doctor or by visiting a walk-in clinic, the study says.

It’s a critical issue for Winnipeg emergency departments, which were recently singled out by CIHI as having by far the longest wait times in the country.

When breaking down unnecessary emergency department visits by age, CIHI found infants and young children have more visits than any other segment of the population.

The study estimates there are 2.7 million potentially avoidable emergency department visits every year.

These visits are estimated to cost about $400 million countrywide.

Story continues below advertisement

That money doesn’t reflect true savings because patients who would visit an ER would go to a walk-in clinic or family doctor, CIHI says.

Increasing the number of family doctors and having walk-in clinics open longer hours can help, the study suggests.

Other solutions include having a phone line staffed by health care professionals and using urgent care centres. Both are in place in Manitoba.

Sponsored content