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 study2 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

Mercer et al4 conducted a study at Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC, aimed at reducing emergency department visits and hospital admissions among 24 of its highest users. They found that 23 (96%) were either addicted to drugs or mentally ill, and 20 (83%) suffered from chronic pain.4

Drug abuse among high users is becoming even more relevant as the opioid epidemic worsens. Given that most patients requiring high levels of care suffer from chronic pain and many of them develop an opioid addiction while treating their pain, physicians have a moral imperative to reduce the prevalence of drug abuse in this population.

Low socioeconomic status

Low socioeconomic status is an important factor among high users, as it is highly associated with greater disease severity, which usually increases cost without any guarantee of an associated increase in quality. Data suggest that patients of low socioeconomic status are twice as likely to require urgent emergency department visits, 4 times as likely to require admission to the hospital, and, importantly, about half as likely to use ambulatory care compared with patients of higher socioeconomic status.5 While this pattern of low-quality, high-cost spending in acute care settings reflects spending in the healthcare system at large, the pattern is greatly exaggerated among high users.

Lost to follow-up

Low socioeconomic status also complicates communication and follow-up. In a 2013 study, physician researchers in St. Paul, MN, documented attempts to interview 64 recently discharged high users. They could not reach 47 (73%) of them, for reasons largely attributable to low socioeconomic status, such as disconnected phone lines and changes in address.6

Clearly, the usual contact methods for follow-up care after discharge, such as phone calls and mailings, are unlikely to be effective in coordinating the outpatient care of these individuals.

Additionally, we must find ways of making primary care more convenient, gaining our patients’ trust, and finding ways to engage patients in follow-up without relying on traditional means of communication.

Do high users have medical insurance?

Surprisingly, most high users of the emergency department have health insurance. The Chicago health system study3 found that most (72.4%) of their high users had either Medicare or private health insurance, while 27.6% had either Medicaid or no insurance (compared with 21.6% in the general population). Other studies also found that most of the frequent emergency department users are insured,7 although the overall percentage who rely on publicly paid insurance is greater than in the population at large.

Many prefer acute care over primary care

Although one might think that high users go to the emergency department because they have nowhere else to go for care, a report published in 2013 by Kangovi et al5 suggests another reason—they prefer the emergency department.5 They interviewed 40 urban patients of low socioeconomic status who consistently cited the 24-hour, no-appointment-necessary structure of the emergency department as an advantage over primary care. The flexibility of emergency access to healthcare makes sense if one reflects on how difficult it is for even high-functioning individuals to schedule and keep medical appointments.

Specific reasons for preferring the emergency department included the following:

Affordability. Even if their insurance fully paid for visits to their primary care physicians, the primary care physician was likely to refer them to specialists, whose visits required a copay, and which required taking another day off of work. The emergency department is cheaper for the patient and it is a “one-stop shop.” Patients appreciated the emergency department guarantee of seeing a physician regardless of proof of insurance, a policy not guaranteed in primary care and specialist offices.

Accessibility. For those without a car, public transportation and even patient transportation services are inconvenient and unreliable, whereas emergency medical services will take you to the emergency department.

Accommodations. Although medical centers may tout their same-day appointments, often same-day appointments are all that they have—and you have no choice about the time. You have to call first thing in the morning and stay on hold for a long time, and then when you finally get through, all the same-day appointments are gone.

Availability. Patients said they often had a hard time getting timely medical advice from their primary care physicians. When they could get through to their primary care physicians on the phone, they would be told to go to the emergency department.

Acceptability. Men, especially, feel they need to be very sick indeed to seek medical care, so going to the emergency department is more acceptable.

Trust in the provider. For reasons that were not entirely clear, patients felt that acute care providers were more trustworthy, competent, and compassionate than primary care physicians.5

None of these reasons for using the emergency department has anything to do with disease severity, which supports the findings that high users of the emergency department were not as sick as their normal-use peers.2


Efforts are being made to reduce the cost of healthcare for high users while improving the quality of their care. Promising strategies focus on coordinating care management, creating individualized patient care plans, and improving the components and instructions of discharge summaries.

Care management organizations

A care management organization (CMO) model has emerged as a strategy for quality improvement and cost reduction in the high-use population. In this model, social workers, health coaches, nurses, mid-level providers, and physicians collaborate on designing individualized care plans to meet the specific needs of patients.

Teams typically work in stepwise fashion, first identifying and engaging patients at high risk of poor outcomes and unnecessary care, often using sophisticated quantitative, risk-prediction tools. Then, they perform health assessments and identify potential interventions aimed at preventing expensive acute-care medical interventions. Third, they work with patients to rapidly identify and effectively respond to changes in their conditions and direct them to the most appropriate medical setting, typically primary or urgent care.

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