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Need to Go to the ER? Not Until the Game's Over!

Sports fans are nuts, right? Prone to erratic, irrational behavior when their team is playing. You’d think that during the Big Game, violent behavior would spike, and maybe lead to higher rates of emergency room visits and even deaths? Not true. A number of studies show that big sporting events do not increase the number of patients admitted to emergency rooms, and in some cases, hospital visits and even heart attack rates have been shown to decrease during a major sporting event. Unless, of course, your team is losing.

Photo: s.yume

The latest study in this vein, published this week in the Journal of Open Medicine, comes from Canada, where researchers examined emergency room visits during the 2010 Olympic gold medal ice hockey game between the U.S. and Canada. The game ended in a 3-2 overtime win by Canada and was seen by roughly half the country, some 16.6 million people, making it the most popular TV broadcast in Canadian history. The study found that the rate of total emergency room visits during the game decreased by 17 percent, compared with corresponding hours for 6 control days.

This effect extended throughout Canada’s largest province, amounted to a decrease of about 136 fewer patients per hour, appeared accentuated for adult men living in rural locations, and was most evident for those with milder triage severity scores presenting with abdominal pain, musculoskeletal disorders, or traumatic injuries.

The study’s authors, Dr. Donald Redelmeier, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, and Marian Vermeulen, an epidemiologist and a lecturer at the University of Toronto, believe the results show just how often a trip to the emergency room is a voluntary decision, rather than a case of life or death.

At face value, the data suggest that perhaps 1 in 6 emergency department visits reflects decisions by patients. A sustained decrease of this magnitude, in theory, might translate to savings in the range of $100 million annually in Ontario. Together, the data highlight the contribution of patient decisions and a role for more behavioural science in medical economics.

The study cites several previous pieces of research indicating similar results. A 2003 French study showed that during the 1998 World Cup Final match, which was held in France and won by France, that heart attack deaths among French men decreased by nearly 30 percent. A 2000 study showed that ambulatory care volumes decreased in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics. And finally, a 2009 study showed that during the 1980 Super Bowl, which the L.A. Rams lost, cardiovascular-related death rates increased in L.A.; but that four years later, during the 1984 Super Bowl, which the L.A. Raiders won, death rates decreased in L.A.
Conclusion: root for a winner.
Note: Redelmeier has shown up a few times before on this blog, and in a Freakonomics Radio podcast about pain.