Emergency Room Myths

The overutilization of emergency rooms is often cited as a dangerous symptom of America’s broken healthcare system. But a new Slate article from Zachary Meisel and Jesse Pines offers a rosier picture of emergency room usage, and dispels several pervasive myths. They write that E.R. care represents less than 3 percent of healthcare spending, only 12 percent of E.R. visits are non-urgent, and the majority of E.R. patients are insured U.S. citizens, not uninsured, illegal immigrants. Meisel and Pines also point out that E.R. visits don’t necessarily cost more than primary care visits: “In fact, the marginal cost of treating less acute patients in the ER is lower than paying off-hours primary care doctors, as ERs are already open 24/7 to handle life-threatening emergencies.” Ultimately, Meisel and Pines believe that emergency rooms are functioning as they’re supposed to, as “an always-available resource to alleviate pain, make sure your baby is not truly ill, and patch you up after a nasty fall is vital, even if it turns out that your condition wasn’t as serious as you feared.”[%comments]


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  1. Gordon says:

    Next you’ll tell me that most people on welfare aren’t irresponsibly having more kids to get more benefits!

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  2. Brett says:

    The other related myth is that people in the U.S. are being denied health care. The ERs doing what they’re supposed to is proof that people do in fact have available health care.

    Health insurance is not as easy to come by however, and preventative care is also not as common as it should be. But health care itself is available with no questions asked – and it’s affordable in the sense that if you can prove an inability to pay, the costs are usually waived.

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  3. Bill says:

    On other points we found the president’s facts checked out. For example, many countries that spend much less on health care nevertheless have higher life expectancy than the U.S. And while we find it doubtful that the uninsured cost other families $1,000 in higher premiums alone, once higher taxes and higher medical costs are factored in, the price tag for the uninsured could well be that high.


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  4. Shmoe says:

    Yea, because The benefits of another kid vs. more money from welfare really work out on paper. You probably also believe people would rather collect unemployment than work and make loads more money too. Right, Gordon?

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  5. Bill Mill says:

    Their source for that 12 percent number is a frikkin’ press release: http://www.acep.org/pressroom.aspx?id=45122. My wife’s an ER physician, I’ll ask her, but based on listening to her that number seems way low and I’d want to know its source. (I’m a biased observer of a biased observer, I know)

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  6. Ann says:

    The marginal cost of treating nonurgent patients in the ER might not be that high to the hospital, but it definitely is higher to the patient, insured or not.

    Another scenario that this doesn’t account for however, is the patient who comes into the ER with a life threatening (and therefore more costly) illness that could have been treated much more cheaply before it became life threatening. This happened to a friend of mine recently. She had an illness that could probably have been treated with an office visit and a round of antibiotics. Because she didn’t have insurance, she didn’t go to the doctor. Instead, she spent 10 days in ICU, and the bill will probably be in 6 figures. Since she still doesn’t have insurance, and likely won’t be able to work for some time, someone else (the state, the hospital) will end up picking up the bill.

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  7. Gordon says:

    Shmoe, do they have sarcasm where you’re from?

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  8. hal says:

    I think it’s a self-selection stat (no pun intended). Those deemed non-urgent by the clerk either leave or die of old age (non-emergent) waiting.

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