For minor ills such as sore throats, privately insured Americans increasingly use urgent care centers rather than hospital emergency rooms, a new study finds.
Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston analyzed 2008-15 data from Aetna, the commercial health insurance company.
“The drop in emergency department visits is quite striking and represents a substantial shift in where patients go to get care for conditions such as sore throat and minor injuries,” study author and emergency physician Dr. Sabrina Poon said in a hospital news release.
Poon and her colleagues found a 36 percent decline in ER visits for minor conditions and injuries during the study period. Meanwhile, use of non-ER services—including urgent care clinics, retail clinics and telemedicine—rose 140 percent.
The largest increase (119 percent) in non-ER services was at urgent care centers, according to the study.
Given the high cost of emergency room care, many insurance plans encourage patients to go elsewhere for treatment of trivial problems, the researchers noted.
“The increasing popularity of alternatives to the emergency department is likely being driven by a variety of factors, including cost, convenience, and long wait times,” said study co-author Dr. Jay Schuur, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s.
“In the next few years, it will be important to see how these trends evolve and whether the growth of alternative sites results in lower cost care or more use of medical care,” Schuur said.
The findings were published in JAMA Internal Medicine.