Letters from Maine

Y 2 the ED? (Why patients go to the emergency department)


Along with terminal care and inflated drug prices, the excessive number of “inappropriate” ED visits often is cited as a major driver of health care costs in the United States. Why do so many patients choose to go to the ED for complaints that might be better or more economically treated in another setting?


A report by two researchers in the division of emergency medicine at the Boston Children’s Hospital that appeared in the June 2019 Pediatrics suggests that, at least for pediatric patients, “increased insurance coverage neither drove nor counteracted” the recent trends in ED visits. (“Trends in Pediatric Emergency Department Use After the Affordable Care Act,” Pediatrics. 2019 Jun 1. doi: 10.1542/peds.2018-3542).

I guess it’s not surprising – and somewhat comforting – to learn that, when parents believe their child has an emergent condition they give little thought to the cost of care. Is the trend of increasing ED use a result of an evolving definition of an “emergency”? Your grandparents, or certainly your great grandparents, might claim that, when they were young most minor injuries were handled at home, or at least in the neighborhood by someone with first aid experience who wasn’t put off by the sight of blood. However, a trend away from self-reliance in everything from food preparation to auto repair, combined with media overexposure to the serious complications of apparently minor illness and injury, has left most parents feeling fearful and helpless in the face of adversity.

We have to accept as a given that many parents are going to interpret their child’s situation as emergent, even though you and I might not. But what are the factors that prompt a concerned parent to take his child to the ED instead of a physician’s office? It may simply be the path of least resistance. The parent’s past experience may include frustrating and time-consuming attempts to navigate a clunky phone system only to be met by a receptionist or triage nurse who seems more committed to deflecting calls and protecting the physician’s schedule than getting the patient seen.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

The call may miraculously get through to someone with a caring voice and the patience to listen, but the parent then learns that the office doesn’t do minor wound care or he is told that the physician almost certainly will want to do an x-ray of any injured extremity and that the ED is a better choice. It doesn’t take very many scenarios like this to prompt a parent to make his first and only call to the ED. To some extent, physician behavior has helped mold parents’ definition of an emergency. “If they can’t see us in the office, it must be an emergency.”

We are encouraged to make our offices a “medical home.” However, it appears the medical home model is one that is built around chronic conditions and behavioral problems and gives little attention to the acute complaints. When you came running into the house with a skinned knee, did your mother tell to you go across the street to the neighbor’s house because blood made her squeamish and she didn’t have any bandages?

There are ways to structure an office and a schedule which are more welcoming to patients with minor emergencies, and I know it is a difficult sell to physicians who are handcuffed by their EHRs and already overwhelmed by patients with time-consuming behavioral complaints. However, if your practice is facing competition from pop-up urgent care centers or if you are increasingly troubled that your patients are receiving fragmented care, it may not be too late to make your practice into a true medical home that welcomes minor emergencies.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at [email protected].

Next Article: