High users of healthcare: Strategies to improve care, reduce costs

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A minority of patients consume a disproportionate amount of healthcare, especially in the emergency department. These “high users” are a small but complex group whose expenses are driven largely by low socioeconomic status, mental illness, and drug abuse; lack of social services also contributes. Several promising efforts aimed at improving quality and reducing healthcare costs for high users include care management organizations, patient care plans, and better discharge summaries.


  • The top 5% of the population in terms of healthcare use account for 50% of costs. The top 1% account for 23% of all expenditures and cost 10 times more per year than the average patient.
  • Drug addiction, mental illness, and poverty often accompany and underlie high-use behavior, particularly in patients without end-stage medical conditions.
  • Comprehensive patient care plans and care management organizations are among the most effective strategies for cost reduction and quality improvement.



Emergency departments are not primary care clinics, but some patients use them that way. This relatively small group of patients consumes a disproportionate share of healthcare at great cost, earning them the label of “high users.” Mostly poor and often burdened with mental illness and addiction, they are not necessarily sicker than other patients, and they do not enjoy better outcomes from the extra money spent on them. (Another subset of high users, those with end-stage chronic disease, is outside the scope of this review.)

Herein lies an opportunity. If—and this is a big if—we could manage their care in a systematic way instead of haphazardly, proactively instead of reactively, with continuity of care instead of episodically, and in a way that is convenient for the patient, we might be able to improve quality and save money.


In the United States in 2012, the 5% of the population who were the highest users were responsible for 50% of healthcare costs. 1 The mean cost per person in this group was more than $43,000 annually. The top 1% of users accounted for nearly 23% of all expenditures, averaging nearly $98,000 per patient per year—10 times more than the average yearly cost per patient.


In addition to being disproportionately expensive, the care that these patients receive is often inappropriate and unnecessary for the severity of their disease.

A 2007–2009 study 2 of 1,969 patients who had visited the emergency department 10 or more times in a year found they received more than twice as many computed tomography (CT) scans as a control group of infrequent users (< 3 visits/year). This occurred even though they were not as sick as infrequent users, based on significantly lower hospital admission rates (11.1% vs 17.9%; P < .001) and mortality rates (0.7% vs 1.5%; P < .002). 2

This inverse relationship between emergency department use and illness severity was even more exaggerated at the upper extreme of the use curve. The highest users (> 29 visits to the emergency department in a year) had the lowest triage acuity and hospital admission rates but the highest number of CT scans. Charges per visit were lower among frequent users, but total charges rose steadily with increasing emergency department use, accounting for significantly more costs per year. 2

We believe that one reason these patients receive more medical care than necessary is because their medical records are too large and complex for the average physician to distill effectively in a 20-minute physician-patient encounter. Physicians therefore simply order more tests, procedures, and admissions, which are often medically unnecessary and redundant.


Mental illness and chemical dependence

Drug addiction, mental illness, and poverty frequently accompany (and influence) high-use behavior, particularly in patients without end-stage diseases.

Szekendi et al, 3 in a study of 28,291 patients who had been admitted at least 5 times in a year in a Chicago health system, found that these high users were 2 to 3 times more likely to suffer from comorbid depression (40% vs 13%), psychosis (18% vs 5%), recreational drug dependence (20% vs 7%), and alcohol abuse (16% vs 7%) than non-high-use hospitalized patients. 3


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