According to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in five Americans reported visiting the emergency department at least once in the past year. The report demonstrates an increasing reliance on emergency care in the United States and the pivotal role played by emergency physicians in the nation’s health care delivery system.
Despite the common misconception that emergency departments are frequently misused by patients with non-emergent conditions, the CDC’s report found that the overwhelming majority of patients visiting emergency departments do so because of symptoms indicating a potential medical emergency. The CDC’s distinction between a patient’s symptoms and their final diagnosis is an important one. This is because a patient presenting with potentially serious symptoms—like chest pain—could be experiencing a medical emergency, but it’s not possible to make a diagnosis until a medical examination is complete.
Emergency departments—which are always open, day or night—are increasingly relied upon by patients who experience potentially serious symptoms during times when other doctors’ offices are not open. Despite this central role in caring for patients, a recent RAND report found that emergency care constitutes a very small portion of America’s health care spending—only 4 percent.